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Faith is what really matters

30 November, 1999

Mass attendance in Ireland is continuing to fall. Desmond O’Donnell, OMI, argues that counting heads at Mass is not the most important thing.

Mass-attendance surveys miss more serious religious issues. This is because the whole business of Mass-going has been carrying more weight than it really should. The mistake begins by making it a primary measure of religious fidelity. Sometimes it has even been equated with people’s relationship with God – a truly shaky equation.

Forty years ago, an older priest taught me this rhyme: “Mr Catholic went to Mass. He never missed a Sunday. But Mr Catholic went to hell for what he did on Monday.” There is no infallible connection between religious actions and Christian behaviour. Until recently, the most ruthless dictators in Latin America enjoyed prominence at Mass. In many Catholic countries some politicians who governed corruptly rarely missed Sunday Mass. Priests who were paedophiles presided at Mass and preached the Gospel while they molested children. This is not to say that all Mass-goers must be perfect; after all, we begin with a public acknowledgement of our sinfulness.

Much Mass-going in the past was socially conditioned, or at least socially supported. Forty years ago in Australia, I heard a Maltese schoolboy say about an Italian classmate: “That daego does not even go to Mass” – a damning indictment in a Catholic community at that time. Not so long ago, people or families who missed Mass, especially in small Irish towns, were commented upon or criticised harshly. No longer. The Vatican II decree on Religious Liberty says, “Only in freedom can people direct themselves towards goodness.” True religion flourishes best in freedom and that freedom has arrived in Ireland. It is one of the church’s main challenges to respond to this freedom.

Celebration of friendship

These were sometimes silent meals because a common language was missing, but they were unambiguous celebrations of friendship. Mass is meant to be a celebration of our shared friendship with God. I felt this very powerfully recently when I conducted a retreat for 27 Church of Ireland priests, and shared in Eucharist with them. As society’s sense of togetherness diminishes and as religious faith continues to be questioned by secularisation, Mass-going will irreversibly become less frequent.

Without faith Mass becomes ritualism or superstition or guilt-laden conformity. Sometimes it verges on magic when people think that it gives children more information during examinations. Because Mass is meant to be a celebration of God’s love, it cannot be meaningful without some religious experience to underpin it. Many people today are honestly facing the fact that their religious experience is not deep enough to celebrate it once a week. It seems to me that many people who do not attend Mass honestly say this by their absence.

Little impact

As modernity and post-modernity continue to question all religious experience and behaviour, Mass attendance is going to decrease in Ireland still more. For a foreseeably long time, this process is predictable and irreversible, as it has been in Holland and Quebec, and as it is now in Malta and Poland. I have lived in each of these countries for short periods after long intervals and – including Ireland – it has been like watching the same movie showing social and religious change replayed five times. Even while pockets of deep faith continue to sprout in them, Mass attendance in Amsterdam, Ottawa, Dublin, Warsaw and Valetta continues to drop.

Need to build on sure foundations

If the church is going to keep the 48 per cent who attend Mass weekly (IMS survey) and to attract others to attend more often, it will need to look more deeply at religious experience and committed faith. In my survey of 707 young adults, only five per cent said they had no experience of God and only four per cent said God did not influence their lives. It is better to build on this sure foundation rather than attempting to short-circuit the Christian journey by counting heads at Sunday Mass.

I think that Irish theologian, James Mackey gets to the nub of the issue. He writes that Mass is meant to be a “symbolic occasion for the presence of Jesus as life-giving Spirit, inspiring participants to take life as a gift and to share it in love and gratitude with others.” A survey to discover how many of us – priests and people – really believe this would be useful.

This article is reprinted from Reality, January 2003. Reality is a publication of the Irish Redemptorists.

The 2002 IMS survey on Mass attendance (Irish Times, 20 Sept. 2002) usefully gives the results of deeper questions on two other tables. Sixty six per cent of Irish Catholics say they have a personal relationship with Christ as son of God, and 40 per cent seek a deeper relationship with him. It is interesting that my own survey (Doctrine and Life, Jan ‘02) showed exactly the same result, namely that 66 per cent of educated young adults had a personal relationship with Christ. In the same survey, 40 per cent said they pray every day and 28 per cent said they pray occasionally. As priests come together with their dwindling congregations, many are trying to make Mass a religious celebration. At the same time, I feel not every priest is doing this. Not every priest is joyfully leading the people in the celebration of a meal with their God, as they recite the Eucharistic prayers mechanically. Of course, if neither the priest nor his parishioners have a joyful experience of their God on weekdays, Sunday Mass will have little impact on those who attend and no attraction for those who don’t.All of which brings me to the question of why people go to Mass. One central aspect of the Mass is that it is ‘The Lord’s Supper’ – a meal. A symbolism of a meal – at least until the microwave arrived – was togetherness. Times of togetherness like weddings, anniversaries and funerals are still accompanied by a shared meal. On many occasions, poor Muslim families in Bangladesh invited me to share a meal with them as did Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka.