During a visit to my ancestral parish church in Kilrossanty, County Waterford, Eire, I remarked to the parish priest about how crowded each of the Sunday Masses was that day.
A good number of people were packed even into the vestibule at both early and later Masses. The Irish pastor gave a shrug of his shoulders and remarked, “Oh, they’re just here out of habit,” to which I earnestly responded, “I could live with that!”
Would that all the parishioners of St. Francis or St. Leo or Sts. John & Paul or Sacred Heart — the several churches in which I have served — were at Mass every Sunday just “out of habit.” A parishioner from St. Leo Parish who grew up in St. Michael Parish in South Providence observed that when he was a youngster, there were so many people walking to and from Masses at St. Michael Church that he and his young friends would have to walk in the street to make room on the sidewalk for the adults. Not too long ago a survey was taken at St. Charles Church in Woonsocket to discover why the heating system, which was working perfectly, never adequately warmed the church. The determination was that the heating system assumed the body heat of 1,000 worshippers. The modest crowds expected today never quite fill the comfort gap.
A recent international survey ranked the Mediterranean island of Malta as tops for Catholic church going – 84 percent, although this had fallen from 95 percent ten years ago. Ireland was second, Poland third, the Philippines followed on the list. The United States ranked low, tied with Italy at 36 percent. The international average for Catholic church attendance was 40 percent — boosted by numbers from the Third World and the former Soviet block.
An American survey lamentably labeled New England as the least churched locality in the United States. The Northwestern states — Washington, Oregon and Idaho — had long held this sad distinction since their religious heritage was that of Protestant circuit riders who would visit sparsely settled communities on a rotating basis rather than settling into a system of territorial parishes which the East Coast had so long maintained. Religion for the Northwest was most often an open Bible at home; religion for the Northeast was more likely a sermon in church. A combination of academic, political and ecclesiastical liberalism has turned the tables on church going in New England among both Protestants and Catholics. Urban Protestants are surviving on their endowments and urban Catholics are subsisting on the pensions of senior citizens. Suburban Catholic parishes depend on numerically large but percentage-wise small numbers of Sunday worshippers. Habits carried from the old country and neighborhood routines are no longer enough to sustain parish life. Deeper commitments are demanded.
A friend once remarked that the Catholic Church is like a house of cards – pull out one card and the whole thing collapses. The one card to which he was referring, believe it or not, was the elimination by Pope John XXIII of the second “Confiteor” at Communion. That, to him, was the beginning of the end. This observation is indeed an overstatement, but it highlights an important truth. The packed Catholic churches of our youth represented a very tightly knitted structure — from the pope, through our bishops, through our rectories, through the sisters in our parish schools, through our parents and even through the people next door. There might have been a few crack-pot theologians in Europe who gainsaid our Catholic practices but they were remote. Catholics enjoyed unity, but the price was uniformity. Consequently the individual Catholic was not prepared for post-1960s individualism, pluralism and secularism. Novelty within the church’s liturgical and religious life plus premarital sex, contraception, homosexuality and abortion, aided by the intrusive entertainment industry with its cult of celebrity along with the move to affluent suburbia, were the several loose cards which shook the 20th century Catholic Church. But the disintegration of the Catholic family through divorce, through inattention to authentic gender roles, through Sabbath disregard and through the embrace of rights over duties will be the fatal card to collapse America’s Catholic Church.
As this column is being written, the Diocese of Providence is in the midst of a statewide “Catholics Come Home” campaign, part of a national effort to reintroduce Roman Catholics to their authentic Christian heritage and especially to the regular worship of God on Sunday. Success will not come from the bishop, the pastor, the parish council or the religious education teacher. Success will only come from mom and dad recommitting themselves to the authentic Catholic family life that has always been the strength of the Catholic Church in any era.