Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Cure of Mass Attendance Decline

Administrators and Shepherds:

In the 1950’s, on his Emmy Award winning, Life is Worth Living, Bishop Fulton Sheen warned believers- but especially Catholics –that during times of prosperity church leaders are apt to become administrators who sit behind desks. The emphasis is more on the office than it is on the mission field. However, during times of adversity, church leaders are more likely to be out there in the mission fields as shepherds with the people. And as for the laity, when talking about the Sacrament of Confirmation in a different address, Bishop Sheen reminded his listeners of the following:

“The laity will have to come to a comprehension that our blessed Lord was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but in the world, on a road way, in a town garbage heap…He place Himself at the very center of the world, in the midst of smut, thieves, soldiers and gamblers.”

Followers of Christ are once again returning to a time of adversity. Prosperity has softened us up and turned us into administrators rather than shepherds and missionaries. We Catholics are beginning to realize that what we have been doing- or not doing –in the last fifty years has not been working. Case and point:

Mass Attendance Decline:

In a local Catholic diocesan newspaper, The Compass, it was reported that Mass attendance has dropped annually about 3 percent; and for the last 10 years, 21 percent. The total number of parishes in the Diocese of Green Bay that has shown signs of growth in recent years is 24. But the sum total of parishes that have decreased is 133.

However, the Church on a national level is no less promising. In her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry A. Weddell reported that there are four times as many people leaving the Catholic Church than entering it. From 2000 to 2009, the rate of adults entering the Church dropped 35 percent. If unchecked, the projected results are sobering. She said,

“If this trend does not change, in ten years it will cease to matter that we have a priest shortage. The Builders will be largely gone, the Boomers retiring, and our institutions- parish and schools –will be emptying at an incredible rate. Sacramental practice will plummet at a rate that will make the post-Vatican II era look good, and the Church’s financial support will vanish like Bernie Madoff’s investment portfolio.”

Nearly a hundred years ago, just when it was becoming clear that Christian civilization was becoming a thing of the past, Pope Benedict XV wrote: “By God's good pleasure, things are preserved through the same causes by which they were brought into being…” In other words, the causes which brought into being a Church capable of producing numberless converts and Christians institutions, are the very causes that will duplicate the same results.

The Cure of Ars:

I recently gave a presentation on an encyclical by Pope John XXIII, written in 1959. The encyclical was on St. John Vianney, also known as the Cure' of Ars. He was a priest who lived from 1786 to 1859 in France. He embodied the principles that made the Catholic Church so attractive in the first thousand years.

As stated in previous articles, during the first millennium of Christianity, over 70 percent of the popes were canonized Saints. This translated into great bishops, priests and lay people. But among the popes in the second millennium, roughly 6 percent were honored as Saints. If we were to ask the reason behind this differential, we would do well to consider why St. John Vianney attracted tens of thousands of souls to his parish Ars, France. Indeed, he spent about a third of his priesthood in the confessional.

However, before people travelled from distant lands to consult him, the holy priest prepared for them. He spent the first ten years of his priesthood- from 1818 to 1827 –begging God, in prayer and fasting, for the conversion of sinners. That’s right. Those first ten years were quiet and uneventful. But he took advantage of that time to intercede on behalf of his parishioners and those souls that would soon come to see him. And even after they came, he never neglected his times for prayer.

The Discipline of Prayer:

St. John Vianney used to say, "A priest must be especially devoted to constant prayer" and "How many people we can call back to God by our prayers!" For him, the emphasis was on the sanctuary or spending time before the tabernacle; not so much on the office or on meetings. He took for granted that prayer was the holiest of works. Far from being idle, to pray is to act on the First Cause of conversion. Just as prayer is a conversation with God, conversion is the work of God. The former gives fuel to the latter. Every ounce of supernatural life has to be drawn from him. Indeed, Christ is the life-principle of our work.

How many of us, who sincerely want to do good work for the Lord, spend more time in the office than in the sanctuary? Or it may be that we are so busy with external works, we neglect our own spiritual needs. But like the early Church Fathers who put prayer as their first priority, St. John Vianney never neglected his own spiritual needs because he was too busy serving others. Pope John XXIII warned the clergy in 1959 about the preoccupation with external works: “Priests in Our own day, are likely to attribute too much to the effectiveness of external activity and stand ready and eager to immerse themselves in the hustle and bustle of the ministry, to their own spiritual detriment!”

Too many of us who set out to do the work of the Lord would dare not miss a meeting, a conference or a pledge drive, but we let prayer slip away from us too easily (To be sure, I am a work in progress in this regard). We forget that it is not what we do or say that is the most important thing. Rather, it is what God does with what we do or say that makes the difference. Christ said, “Without me you can do nothing.” And Psalm 127 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”

The question then becomes: Are we building in vain? Are we, like the early Christians and St. John Vianney, giving prayer its due? For them, designated times of prayer throughout the day were of the highest priority; more important than any administrative duty. It is what attracted souls to Christ. As Pope Pius XII said in reference to St. John Vianney, “A man who is filled with Christ will not find it hard to discover ways and means of bringing others to Christ."

The Way Back Home:

The way ancient pagan civilization was saved, with all of its cruelty and barbarity, is the same way our post-Christian civilization will be saved. After the martyrs did their part by sanctifying the European and Mediterranean soil with their blood, the monastics (i.e. religious monks and nuns) built upon that foundation through the habit of prayer and penance. They gave us the template of spiritual and evangelistic success.

The early Christians- the ones who called down God's grace for so many conversions -were not half as administrative as we are, but they got things done! As Sister Lucia, a Fatima seer, once wrote: We receive more light, more strength, more grace and virtue than you could ever achieve by reading many books, or by great studies. She then added that with a real commitment to prayer we will accomplish a lot in a short period of time.

As for St. John Vianney, he did daily meditations, he visited the Blessed Sacrament, he recited the Rosary, and carefully examined his conscience. But like the early Christians, he did more. He offered spiritual sacrifices for sinners. With St. Paul, he exhorted his parishioners to do the following: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”  St. John Vianney also used to say, "The works of penance abound in such delights and joys that once they have been tasted, nothing will ever again root them out of the soul.... Only the first steps are difficult for those who eagerly choose this path."

The Cure' of Ars knew that making spiritual sacrifices on behalf of others was essential. One day, a priest had inquired as to why tens of thousands of pilgrims visited Ars, France; this, just to see the holy priest. In response, St. John Vianney reminded him: “You have preached, you have prayed, but have you fasted? Have you taken the discipline? Have you slept on the floor? So long as you have done none of these things, you have no right to complain.”

Keep in mind that the Catholic parish in Ars was not well attended at all for the first ten years after St. John Vianney arrived. But eventually, what he did to increase Mass attendance worked! It is a recipe for success. In fact, about one hundred years later, the "cure" to low Mass attendance was once again confirmed. As Jesus reminded St. Faustina, “You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone.”

The Heart of the Matter:

Assisting at Mass presupposes an active, living relationship with Christ. Without talking to Jesus on a daily basis, without learning more about Jesus through the reading of Scripture on a daily basis and without doing one's best to observe his precepts on a daily basis, the Mass is just another ritual. It's hardly worth getting up for on Sunday mornings. You see, just as a family meal in the home presupposes a pre-existing relationship among family members, so too does the Sacred Meal at the altar presuppose a communion with Christ and his Church.  But to ignite the flame of faith- to stoke the fire of love for our Lord in the hearts of people -it is absolutely essential "workers in the vineyard" revisit what has proven to work in the past. Not only did St. John Vianney and the early Christians point out the cure to spiritual apathy, the applied it! And, as history reveals, the results were impressive.