During my later years of high school, I remember often wondering about a situation we faced in our local Catholic parishes. Those of my generation as a general rule, although there were always pockets of exception, did not attend Mass. I especially felt sympathy for the many parents who, holding the Faith as dear to them, faced the horror of watching their children walk away from God. They were attending Mass while their teenage and young adult children preferred to sit at home or hang out with their friends. What was happening?
What was the reason for this? What went wrong? It is something I have been puzzled about ever since. Now I am a parent myself, this question has been ever present with me as my children grow older. As the years roll by, we observe this plague continue as good and holy parents are watching many of their children grow up and walk away from the Faith. So being fairly analytical, today my wife and I wonder to ourselves as we embark on the same journey, why would things pan out differently for us? I think this is a healthy question every Catholic parent with young children should be asking.
My background is in business, I studied business, worked as a business analyst for many years and nowadays I am a business owner. As part of this experience, analysing the root cause of why things occur has been a daily occupation. About two years ago I made the decision to try to apply to the Church some of the business methodology I had learnt. The hope was to understand if there were practical ways to solve these problems and grow the Church once again.
A business improvement effort always kicks off with measurement of results. It didn’t take long to dig out the statistics for Australia. Mass attendance and religious vocations seemed like the obvious indicators to focus on. Suffice to say these stats were frightening.
The size of our church attending population was declining by 20% every five years. Furthermore, we should consider the number of very good church attending Catholics who are immigrating to Australia from Asia and filling the pews. Taking this into account, the reality about our ability to pass the Faith from parent to child is worse than the stats suggest. The migrant Catholics along with the elderly (who incidentally were educated before Vatican II, more on that later) make up the vast majority of our church attendees. Unfortunately the statistics back up what can be observed at the local level, home grown Catholics in Australia are statistically speaking, a relatively rare phenomenon these days.
A very interesting fact was the decline began at a distinct point in time. In terms of problem solving, this is very helpful because it gives us a clue as to what might have happened. If you are looking for a root cause, and you see the indicators suddenly change at a moment in time, then some event or events around that time must be the cause. This distinct point in time was the early 1960s. In the mid 1950s weekly Mass attendance in Australia had been an impressive 74% of Catholics. From that moment the attendance went into a continuous free fall and at last measurement in 2011, it was sitting at around 12.2%. With the new stats about to be released we’d reasonably expect, based on the trend, it may now edge 10%. (It should be noted that this same trend has been witnessed around the developed world. Some developed countries faring slightly better, but some are a lot worse. On the other hand, developing nations in Africa and Asia are currently experiencing explosive growth.)
I began to examine more deeply what occurred at this point in time. The Second Vatican Council was announced in 1959 and held from 1962 to 1965. Experimentation in liturgy increased during the 1950s and immediately after the Council, the liturgy of the Mass was radically changed. Then seemingly overnight, catholic education radically changed. Despite the fact that the relevant document on liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, promotes a very traditional liturgy with minor change, what was rolled out soon after the council was very different to the contents of the document.
Many are of the view that Vatican II was never implemented according to the intentions of the Council fathers. Instead, what was implemented was something called “The spirit of Vatican II”. A lot more could be said as why this happened and what forces were behind it, but I won’t dwell on that now.
I was recently involved in a workshop with a group of Catholic parents on the topic “Passing on the Faith”. When brainstorming about the lack of success in this regard, the subject that got the most attention was the liturgy. Not everyone would agree about the direction it should take, but every parent unanimously agreed that there were many aspects of our typical Sunday liturgies that were not helping us parents to do our job.
In my opinion, a church can either go down the path of entertainment or it can focus on the sacred. A common characteristic of church communities that are growing around the world right now, is that they do one of these really well. The churches communities that try to do a bit of both are declining rapidly. I think it’s like being half pregnant. If you’re doing something sacred, go ahead and make it sacred. If you’re about entertaining people, go ahead and deliver world class entertainment. If you try to do a bit of both, you end up doing neither. And as one 18 year old told me recently, the young people see this as “fake”.
Some protestant churches are having success attracting young people with world class music, slick presentations and modern marketing. They are able to do this each week because they don’t have the sacrifice of the Mass and Jesus physically present on an altar. Our situation is different and in my view it is not fitting for us to be about entertaining people during a ritual that has us present at the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. In fact to do this would be inconsistent with what we are teaching and young people reject inconsistency more than anybody. By all means, quality entertainment in a different forum is a great thing and we should do more of it.
The other area of Christianity that is growing very rapidly is among Catholic communities that offer the extraordinary form of the Mass (also known as the Traditional Latin Mass). If you attend one of these Masses you’ll usually see people of a diverse age group and a high proportion of young adults. Get there early though because often times the attendance at these masses is so high you may not get a seat.
As a parent I find when I take my children to the ordinary form of the Mass I have to remind them “please be good, Jesus is present on the altar”. When I take them to the extraordinary form, there is so much sacredness and reverence I don’t need to say such things because the liturgy makes this fact self-evident to children. Comparing the two masses is a topic for another article, but suffice to say, when I am at the EF Mass I am left in no doubt as to what is happening. This is amazing and ironic given it’s in a language I don’t understand. But for me the language used is not the main difference, its one aspect. The difference is the symbolism, mystery, orientation towards Christ, sacred music, silence, seriousness and rich theological meaning.
The EF Mass was built up and refined over 1500 years, with the intention to do the best possible job we can as human beings to offer something worthy to God. Many oppose this mass, but people like myself and my children, born after Vatican II, and seeing its great benefits, should not be robbed of what Pope Benedict said is “…to be considered an extraordinary expression of the same lex orandi of the Church and duly honoured for its venerable and ancient usage” (Summorum Pontificum).
Essential to the crisis of Faith with our young people is a failing belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Greater availability of the EF Mass, which has a liturgy that is closely aligned with this teaching, can go a long way to strengthening this belief. In my opinion, making the extraordinary form of the Mass much more available in many locations could be an effective mechanism to reach many of our young people who might otherwise walk away. If you don’t believe me, just go to a Latin Mass sometime and see how many cars with P plates are parked out the front. Or ask your local Latin Mass community how many seminarians they are training right now.
It cannot be forgotten that the conversion of a heart happens as a result of God’s grace. Likewise what is needed for the Church in developed nations, is a pouring out of God’s grace upon His people. We tend to rely so much upon human means, but it is God that will draw people to Himself. A good question to ask might be “why has this not been happening in our country over the past 50 years?” God is omnipotent and could fix the problems we face very easily and very quickly. So “why has He not done so?”
Perhaps this question can be answered from the scriptures and from the insights of our great saints and teachers. It seems to me, that for God to do this he needs something from us first. That something He wants from us is “due worship”. Worship that is fitting for the miraculous event that is taking place on the altar. As we see in the Old Testament, wherever God’s people fail to offer Him due worship, they find themselves in exile and not protected from suffering. Consider the comments of these great people:
“The Lord will come and visit His church with His graces in the measure we pay Him due worship”
St Thomas Aquinas (i)
“If anyone should attentively consider the progress and the decline, and the reformations of life which have often occurred in the Church, he will find that neglect or abuse of this sacrament has been the cause of decline; and, on the other hand, that faithful worship and devout frequentation of this Sacrament have wonderfully contributed to progress and reform… Whenever the divine mysteries are neglected or undevoutly performed, no hope of any good need be entertained.”
St. John Fisher (ii)
“I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is, to a large extent, due to the disintegration of the liturgy.”
Pope Benedict XVI (iii)
"What we previously knew only in theory has become for us a practical experience: the Church stands and falls with the liturgy. When the adoration of the divine Trinity declines, when the faith no longer appears in its fullness in the liturgy of the Church, when man’s words, his thoughts, his intentions are suffocating him, the faith will have lost the place where it is expressed and where it dwells. For that reason, the true celebration of the sacred liturgy is the center of any renewal of the Church whatever."
Pope Benedict XVI (iv)
We need to ask ourselves, “Is God happy with the worship we are offering Him in our time?” If we are not sure about the answer to this, we better start thinking about it. As a domestic church, the family, we should consider our options. One such option could be to work with our friends to establish an EF Mass in our local area.
This article only scratches the surface of this topic. There are other significant issues that affect the ability of parents to pass the faith onto their children, more than could be covered here. However, it could be argued that the way we worship is foundational to this challenge and for better or worse, many other things flow from here. There is a lot of talk today about the “New Evangelisation” within the Church. We would do well if the narrative around this concept were to adopt a much greater focus on liturgical renewal as an essential and foundational element of its success.
Whether you agree with aspects of this article or not, I hope you agree that our ability to pass on the Faith to our children, is a topic that needs urgent discussion. When running a business that goes into decline, action is taken extremely quickly. Yes the Church is very different, but surely after 50 years we should now be in a position to better face this issue, analyse it thoroughly and take more necessary steps to address the situation. If not for the glory of God, at least it should be done out of empathy for Catholic parents.
i) Sacris Solemniis
ii) Quoted in Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis, Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Mass, and Renewal in the Church by Peter Kwasniewski, Angelico Press, 2014).
iii) Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977
iv) In his preface to Franz Bried’s Die heilige Liturgie