Corresponds to Question 27 of the survey.
We just returned from our annual visit to see my wife’s family in Spain. As she does every year, my mother-in-law brought the whole family together for lunch. (By “lunch,” I mean a feast lasting an entire Sunday afternoon.) Everyone had already visited with us individually; but make no mistake: they were all obliged to attend.
Why do we do that? Why do we mark significant occasions like visits from faraway relatives with obligatory family gatherings? After all, if we don’t show up, do we suddenly cease being individual members of the family? Nope. But we have lost – or are losing – what it really means to be a member of a family.
The question of Sunday Mass attendance is similar, but even more profound. It begs the questions: what does it mean to be Catholic? To be Christian? What is the Church and what does it mean to be a member of the Church?
The simple answer, of course, is that to be a Christian is to actually be a member of Christ’s Body in communion. And by definition, we can’t be members of a body in isolation, but only together, in the most profound unity. And we can’t do that unless we show up. But how does this happen in the Church? Pope Saint John Paul II puts it well:
“The Body of Christ in the Holy Eucharist sacramentalizes this communion, that is, it is a sign and actually brings about the intimate bonds of communion among all the faithful in the Body of Christ which is the Church (1 Cor 10:16)”. (Christifideles Laici, 19)
This is what lies behind the Church’s consistent teaching on the obligation to attend Sunday Eucharist: the Catechism clearly states that those who, without good reason, fail in the obligation to attend Sunday Eucharist and other days of obligation are committing “a grave sin” (#2181).
Less than 20 percent of Catholics attend Sunday Eucharist regularly. We’re losing something fundamental in our identity as Catholic Christians. This is a matter of belief – that’s why “we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” is in the Creed. If it’s a matter of faith, it’s a challenge for evangelization.
Turning to the Parish Survey results, we can see two groups of people, broadly speaking:
- Those who come regularly, or who would come regularly if they possibly could, and
- Those who are not coming, and have lost, or are losing, this essential connection between Christian faith and being a member of the Church.
Those Who Need Our Help
It’s helpful to simply go down through the list of options in Q. 27 and ask the question: how might we as a parish remove these obstacles? This is especially relevant to three options that scored high across the Archdiocese:
- 34% say they can’t attend because they’re working or in school; this number jumps to 55% for African American Catholics, and 54% for Hispanic Catholics
- 30% say they can’t attend because of health problems or disability; this number goes up to 44% for African Americans, and 32% for Hispanics
- 18% say it’s because of divorce or marriage outside the Church (although that number drops to single digits in the African American and Hispanic communities).
These are our brothers and sisters who most likely would like to be with us on Sunday, but cannot and need our help to remove the obstacles, to go out to them, to journey with them and help them find the way back.
Our Mission Field
And then there are the members of the family who don’t show up because they have better things to do, or because they’re not so interested in being part of the family any more:
- 37% say they don’t attend because of “sports and other activities”
- 30% because they don’t “feel they need to come to church every week,” and
- 19% because “church is becoming less relevant in my life”
Considering these daunting numbers, it’s helpful to keep in mind that most of our brothers and sisters simply don’t get the whole Sunday Mass obligation and grave sin thing. They might think it’s faded into the past. Or they might have never even heard tell of it. Many have little, if any, culpability.
That’s why the onus is on us to go out to them, and to accompany, invite, and welcome them. If a good society is one that makes it “easier” to be good, then a good parish today is one that makes it “easier” to attend and participate at Sunday Eucharist. Here it’s impossible to overemphasize the important of making sure the “three H’s” are everything they ought to be:
We can’t compete head-to-head with sports. We can’t just confront folks with paragraph #2181 of the Catechism. But we can make changes so that when we go out and invite a brother or sister to Mass, and they accept that invitation, their experience of Sunday Eucharist, and the parish community, will make them want to come back the next Sunday. And the next.