There is a media consultancy company that does consulting work for several Catholic dioceses around the country. Currently, the consultancy company is marketing an advertising campaign intended to welcome Catholics back to Sunday Liturgy after their hiatus from church attendance during the pandemic.
There are many Catholic households that continue to refrain from attending Sunday Liturgy due to a legitimate concern about the risk of infection. I expect that those households, most of which participate in Sunday worship by means of live streamed services, will return to regular practice after the pandemic subsides. There is also a significant number of former church attendees who will not return at any point in time. These folks went to Sunday Mass out of habit; the pandemic changed their habits and, consequently, they will probably never return to Mass attendance.
The social upheaval caused by the pandemic has accelerated many previously existing social trends. I think that the century-long decline in Mass attendance in this country is one of those trends that has been accelerated by the pandemic. I am intrigued by the media company’s advertising campaign to welcome Catholics back to regular attendance. If I could ask the company about the rationale for the “Welcome Back” campaign, I would ask whether it is a reaction to the return of some Catholics to Mass or a reaction to the large numbers that are not returning to regular practice. I probably won’t get the opportunity to ask, but the answer is probably the latter, as many of those who quit Mass attendance during the pandemic have also quit their association with the Church. In a like manner, in today’s Gospel reading, some of Jesus’ disciples quit their association with him.
In the section of John’s Gospel that contains today’s reading, Jesus had been explaining that he was sent by God to proclaim God’s promise of salvation and to inaugurate the final phase of God’s plan to rescue all creation from sin and death. Some of Jesus’ disciples complained that he was making himself equal to God. They said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (Jn. 6:60) They abandoned him for a more conventional and familiar religious life. (Jn. 6:66)
What are we to think of these half-hearted disciples who fell away from a putative faith in Jesus? Why do people continue to wander away from church attendance? Why would anyone reject Jesus’ words that “are spirit and life”? (Jn. 6:63) If I could ask those who have stopped attending Mass about their reasons for doing so, I would probably receive as many distinct answers as there are people who have stopped going to church. Perhaps, this isn’t the question we should be asking. Perhaps, we should ask instead about ourselves. Rather than asking about those who have left our community, perhaps we should ask ourselves about why we are here. Why, then, have you stayed?
Is Sunday Mass attendance merely a habit for you? Is it something you do out of sense of obligation? Are you here to worship? If so, what are you worshiping here?
Jesus said that faithful worship of God is accomplished by being fed by God’s wisdom poured out in Jesus’ teachings. It is, of course, possible to misunderstand the nature of worship just as some people misunderstand the nature of Jesus’ teaching. It is possible, for example, to come to church to feed our complaints, or fears, or desires to God. Despite the many possible misunderstandings, faithful worship of God means to be fed by God’s Word.
Therefore, you might want to take a few moments to ask yourself what it means to you when Jesus says, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (Jn. 6:63) Peter’s reaction to these words was to acknowledge that Jesus spoke God’s own words of truth. (Jn. 6:68-69) What is your reaction to Jesus’ words?
If you’re searching for the “right” answer to the question above, the answer is: your reaction to Jesus’ words is also the answer to the question about why you are here today.