The future of the Sunday Mass


1. Declining Mass attendance

We all know the statistics about attendance decline. Equally serious is the lack of a clear rationale in the minds of many people about the need and the benefits of Mass attendance.

A church goer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper complaining that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. He wrote:
“I’ve been going for 30 years now, and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons, but for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I'm wasting my time, and the preachers and the priests are waiting theirs by giving sermons at all.”

After a lengthy debate, someone wrote this clincher::
“I’ve been married for 30 years now. In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I know this: They all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today!” (copied from a parish bulletin)

Is this a fair reply? What is your motivation (not your theological justification) for Sunday mass attendance? What would you say to your students about both the question and the answer?

2. The routinization of Masses

After serving for 23 years as pastor of the same parish in a small town, a priest wrote in this farewell letter to his parishioners, "I estimate that I have celebrated Mass and preached about 14,000 times in our parish church, an average of 12 times per week."

Only 12 Masses per week? I guess that if this priest had been in charge of several parishes, he may have said 15 to 20 Masses per week, that is, two Monday through Friday, 4 or 5 on Saturdays, 5 or 6 on Sundays, and endless weddings and funerals. Over time, repetition easily turns into routine. Imagine an actor playing Hamlet 365 times a year, for 30 or 40 years in a row; what about 30,000 masses in the career of a priest?

Priests usually do not shine for their personal relationship with Jesus Christ like Evangelicals, nor for their in-depth knowledge of scripture in their homilies, nor their theological insights into the mystery of God. For lack of an alternative, many priests over time become routine ritual specialists, of the Mass and the sacraments. When parishes are consolidated, the main concern is to secure ritual availability for the parishioners--the faith of the people is taken for granted, often wrongly in reference to the young.

With the declining number of priests, is ritual centeredness the way of the future?

3. The de-routinization of the Mass

Two Catholic television networks, one in Guatemala and the other in France, broadcast only one Sunday Mass and none during the week, but they have many hours, maybe four to six a day, dedicated to biblical reflections and spirituality, but no daily Mass.

One U.S. parish priest abolished the weekday Masses and instituted bible studies. Instead of the 20 or so lonely souls at the morning Mass, he has about 150 people taking his weekly bible study class. On weekday, instead of going to Mass, his parishioners increasingly read and study the bible.

What is the way of the future? True community Sunday celebrations? More routinized Masses? More bible studies leading to "summit" Sunday celebrations? Which alternative is the clergy prepared for?

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