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A man walks in front of the Church of Our Lady of Peace in New York July 31, 2015. (CNS photo/Eduardo Munoz, Reuters)
St. David the King
Princeton Junction, New Jersey Thomas Baker
Not to brag, but when people in our area shop for a parish, my parish
is the one that wins. At least, that’s what former parish shoppers tell
me. Maybe over at our competitors, they hear the same thing from those
who fled our parish, but I choose to believe otherwise.
We have four well-attended weekend Masses in a modern, sunlit,
semi-circular church that holds about six hundred people. Collections
are the envy of parishes several times our size. Baptisms outnumber
funerals by a wide margin. Outreach programs attract plenty of
volunteers. In recent years, as central New Jersey has changed, so has
our parish: Asian and Filipino families mix with the long-established
Italian and Irish émigrés from Brooklyn and Jersey City. Every week,
seeing these friends and strangers coming forward for the Eucharist, the
bond uniting us seems something of a miracle, and I am grateful for the
So, on most weekends, it seems to me like the state of Sunday Mass is
not so bad. And yet I realize my parish is an unusual and healthy one,
and that the more than seventeen thousand other parishes out there
include many without the resources and talent we have. In the pages that
follow, you’ll see reports on a wide variety of Catholic Sunday
experiences on two weekends, one in June and one in July. It’s too small
a sample, of course, to draw quantitative conclusions—but not, perhaps,
to get an impression of how Catholic Sundays are faring.
All of these parishes are making an effort, sometimes valiantly, to do what they can with what they have.
of these parishes are making an effort, sometimes valiantly, to do what
they can with what they have. True, you will see some off-putting
curiosities: Stepfordish altar boys in one place, culture war disguised
as prayer in another. Still, none of our intrepid correspondents felt
like walking out, or saw any true monstrosities: no harangues from the
pulpit, no cappae magnae, not a single clown. There are churches with
what sound like decent crowds, and even some tears of joy and
engagement, and yet also a great deal of what looks, on the surface at
least, like routine and indifference. There are multiple reports of many
Catholics sitting way in the back, literally and perhaps spiritually
near the exit.
Is the current state of things one of “well-intentioned mediocrity,”
as J. Peter Nixon writes, or are we somehow muddling through? In a
recent authoritative study of parish health, more than 90 percent of
Mass-going Catholics said they were satisfied with their parish. But of
course, that number is deceptive. My mentor in marketing research taught
me that dying products often show high customer satisfaction, since the
dissatisfied are long gone. Only 24 percent of Catholics say they went
to Mass last week, less than half the rate of fifty years ago. Young
adults largely don’t ever go, and haven’t for years. Latino Catholics
show losses of Catholic affiliation that rival their Anglo counterparts.
The sexual-abuse crisis has, by many reports, weakened attendance still
further. A third of all baptized Catholics have left the church.
Looking ahead, even maintaining this status quo is likely to be
difficult. An aging and contracting priesthood means that even healthy
parishes like mine will face a crisis of leadership sooner rather than
later. You’ll see warning signs of that growing, self-inflicted shortage
in these reports—a priest driving two hundred miles to visit a rural
church, a parish grateful to have half of a pastor’s time, a Spanish
Mass said by a priest who doesn’t know Spanish. And in the Northeast and
Midwest, diocesan budget cuts and consolidations make those of us in
the parish business feel like the manager of the surviving local Sears:
it’s only a matter of time before it’s our turn.
So, despite all the dedication and prayer, these are snapshots of a
project in desperate need of renewed attention, maybe even innovation.
Our editor asked me to write not just as a skeptical Commonweal observer
but as, God help me, a liturgical practitioner, a deacon who preaches
at my parish regularly and observes things from both sides of the
sanctuary, as it were. What can those of us in the parish business
Amid all the diversity of culture, taste, and language, the secrets
of successful Sunday liturgy are not very secret. The research about
what keeps people coming has been clear for years. An atmosphere of
respectful, genuine welcome. Good preaching. That’s it. I know there are
many other things that have to happen at a liturgy, a thousand matters
of rubric and potential conflict. But people seem to be able to overlook
all sorts of flaws if you can deliver on those two promises.
Not that either is easy. “Welcome” is a matter of attention over time
to subtle details, and the elimination of the wildly mixed signals most
churches send. In our parish, architecture helps. As soon as people
walk into the gathering area—a large foyer before people get into the
church proper—there are usually plenty of conversations going on, staff
members talking with parishioners as they walk in, friends catching up,
grown children back for a visit. Even if you yourself don’t get a
personal greeting as a stranger, it seems as if people like being there.
On your way through, you can eavesdrop, decide if you like the way
people treat one another, and start figuring out if this is a place
where you might fit in.
Mass at St. David the King (Bob Garver)
the welcome is much more explicit, and it needs to be. People are told
with some regularity, in homilies and at the great gatherings of
sometimes-Catholics called Christmas and Easter, that this is where they
belong no matter what condition of soul or life or marriage or sexual
orientation they find themselves in. And God bless him, the pastor—who
over twenty years in the parish has had a long time to indoctrinate his
staff in what matters—really believes it.
Don’t people come to Mass needing a glimpse of the divine? Yes, that
hasn’t changed. But in the world of Catholics as they are now, the sign
of the divine they seem to need first is an imperfect but unconditional
human welcome. Only after that can the rite and the Eucharist do the
rest of their work, hopefully not too impeded by our failings in
As for preaching, this is unfortunately a matter of luck more than
determined parish-wide effort. You have the priests and deacons you
have. In my parish not only is the pastor a good preacher but so are the
retired priests who are our regular weekend visitors. What seems to
touch people in preaching is easy to describe although hard to do: a
homily that presents Jesus without dilution or sentimentality,
recognizes the existence of doubt and pain, and avoids triteness and
condescension. Can preachers also deliver the “learning and wit” Luke
Timothy Johnson hoped for (in vain) in his parish visit? I suppose that
would be a great bonus.
Music, in these reports from the field, still seems to be a source of
as much division and disappointment as joy. Some of us are looking for,
as Elizabeth Cahill writes, “beauty, order, balance”; others, me
sometimes included, respond to the more openly tacky and emotional.
We’re a culturally diverse church, and a musically eclectic liturgy that
makes everyone a little dissatisfied is probably inevitable in most
parishes. A lot of the popular songs people say they hate, from
“Canticle of the Sun” to “Be Not Afraid,” aren’t bad as much as brutally
overused. In my parish, I know for a fact there are songs I dislike
that are important to others, so I grin and (mostly) bear it. As for me,
I’d love to hear more Ola Gjeilo, and sing “For All the Saints” every
Sunday. On the other hand, I’d never heard of “Sign Me Up” until John
Schwenkler mentioned it below in his report, but having checked it out, I
think it’s now on my list.
This is not a time in which the larger church is investing much time
or energy in the liturgy. Our bishops’ primary recent activity in this
area is their Roman Missal translation, so perhaps we should simply be
grateful that is all they have done. Yet at the parish level, there is
plenty to try. We could do much, much more to reach out to and reinvite
those who have left. Preaching education and formation is available out
there, although not on nearly a large enough scale. It’s worth
experimenting with liturgies in unusual locations, and at unusual times,
to reach the underserved and the parish-allergic. Young adults
themselves—and not the way-too-Catholic ones who usually take the lead
in such projects—need to define and set the tone for whatever efforts
are directed to their peers.
Yet all this assumes that we still have the same goal: churches with
people in them. You might think that’s obvious, but one of our problems
may be that people aren’t always at the center of the vision. Last year I
was studying church websites, and was surprised to notice a frequent
pattern in the ones from Catholic parishes: so many of the photographs,
whether of church exteriors or interiors, didn’t have a single person in
them. It is almost as if we are still tempted to think people might be
drawn to an empty church more than a full one, and maybe that God is our
audience, not humans. If we are wondering what we can do that will
bring people closer to the Mass that has sustained Christians for so
long, it starts with realizing that people are both our audience and one
of the reasons other people stay. Welcoming imperfect, reluctant people
to the table, again and again, is what makes a real Christian jubilee.
For that, the song says, people might sign up. Thomas Baker is Commonweal’s publisher.