In his book Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor wrote about his childhood fascination with Roman Catholicism. Growing up in a fundamentalist church community, Keillor was intrigued by the local Catholic parish’s celebration of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The assembly of animals to be blessed on the lawn of the Catholic church on the Feast of St. Francis made him wonder what mysteries lie inside the Catholic parish’s church building. He imagined that in addition to the cows, horses, and pigs on the lawn, there were probably elephants and acrobats inside.
Whether for good or for ill, Catholic worship in the Latin Rite Church is not as exciting or captivating as Keillor’s childhood imaginings. The Sunday celebration in the Latin Rite Church is very cognitive, that is, it is very much an act of one’s intellect. The Eastern Rites of the Catholic Communion, by comparison, tend to have liturgies that appeal to the senses. The Eastern liturgies are filled with interesting sights and metaphorical actions. As worship in the Latin Rite is a very cognitive, it helps if one provides one’s own imaginative engagement with Sunday worship.
Last year, the U.S. Bishops started a three-year project of renewal of participation in the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. The impetus, I think, for their renewal project was the noticeable drop in church attendance due to the pandemic.
Church attendance by baptized Catholics has been in steady decline for at least two hundred years. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops started collecting annual Mass attendance data in 1950. Prior to that, there was some sporadic church attendance data gathered during the period between the two World Wars. That data show a steady decline of about 3% per year at least since the 1930’s. Additionally, there is historical and social data from the early decades of the nineteenth century that indicate a widespread concern among Catholic Bishops about declining Mass participation by the baptized at least as early as the 1830’s.
This established trend of decline in Mass attendance is not a recent phenomenon. It was well-established by the beginning of the twentieth century and remained unchanged until the pandemic. After the demographic data from before and after the pandemic has been compiled, I think we will see that there was a significant drop in Mass attendance due to the pandemic and then, a return to the historical trend of decline. I am not convinced that a renewal initiative focused on the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist will be sufficient to reverse or even arrest this trend of decline. I do think, however, that it is always appropriate to give more attention to one’s participation in Sunday Liturgy. To that end, our parish participation in the Bishops’ Conference renewal initiative will focus on fostering greater personal engagement in the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.
Beginning on Monday, April 17, there will be weekly information on the parish website that will provide guidance for preparing for the coming Sunday’s celebration by praying with the Scripture readings from Mass.
Our religious education program for school children uses a curriculum that focuses on the Sunday Scripture readings. Many of our parents have remarked over the years that it helps their children participate in Sunday worship. The weekly resources on the parish website take a similar approach and can be used for your personal daily prayer or shared family prayer. The ideas for prayer and reflection you’ll find on our website will take no more than fifteen minutes a day but will provide a lasting benefit for your relationship with God.
The first set of prayer ideas that will be posted on the parish website address next Sunday’s Gospel, the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The two disciples leaving Jerusalem after Jesus’ death were shaken out of their disappointment and dismay by an experience of the Risen Lord. Their renewed faith in Jesus started with his explanation of the Scriptures. This national renewal project is an opportunity for us to hear the Scriptures, pray with them, and better prepare ourselves to meet the Risen Lord in our weekly breaking of the Eucharistic bread.
Quite obviously, if you choose to participate in this two-month renewal process in our parish, you won’t see elephants and acrobats performing at church on Sunday. You won’t even have an experience like Thomas did in this Sunday’s Gospel when he touched the nail marks in Jesus’ hands. I can promise, however, you’ll have a much more rewarding experience of Sunday Mass by hearing God’s Word, praying with God’s Word, and thereby, being better prepared to encounter the Risen Lord in the Eucharist.