A reason to return, a desire to stay, a longing to belong
I was talking to a woman just before the pandemic began and she was telling me about her parish. In the middle of our chat, she said to me ‘sure, you would be half ashamed nowadays to admit that you go to Mass’.
Why do people come to Church? What attracts people them? There are probably as many answers are there are people who worship.
There are people who never miss Sunday Mass. Their week wouldn’t be the same if they didn’t go. They missed it greatly when our Churches were closed due to the pandemic. There are fewer people in this group today than in the past. The Blessed Sacrament, the saints, prayer, ritual, scripture, sacred music, community, stillness are all important to these people. They are the heart, the mainstay of our parishes. They love their church, and they keep it alive for those who only engage occasionally. They volunteer, clean, collect, steward, help with the liturgy or anything else that is needed.
Then, there are people who attend Sunday Mass most of the time. They like to be present. However, if their Sunday schedule is disrupted, they might not get to Mass. Holidays, visitors, bringing children to sport might upset their programme and Mass might not be possible. Nevertheless, they value prayer and the sacraments. They don’t agree with the Church on everything. They would be happy to join a parish group that they see as relevant to them such as the parents’ group if they have a child in the First Holy Communion or Confirmation class. During this time of pandemic many of these people have not returned to Sunday Mass. Surveys suggest that many of them won’t. They might occasionally engage with on-line liturgy. Many of them have found a new pattern to their lives which they might well stick with.
Moving out to the next circle, we meet people who go to Church every now and again. Worship isn’t a huge priority for them, but they will be present if there is a reason. A baptism, wedding, funeral or month’s mind Mass might be a reason. There is a good chance they will come to Church for Christmas, but probably not for Easter. They will have their children baptised and receive the other sacraments. They might help in some parish activity as a personal favour to the priest if they know and like him, but they would prefer not to be asked.
Then on the periphery, you have the people who rarely come to Mass. They put themselves down as Catholic in the census of population but in reality, they don’t think much about religion or spirituality. They probably grew up with little contact with church or perhaps they used to attend but don’t bother any more. They are likely to present their children for the sacraments partially because everyone else is doing it. If First Holy Communion and Confirmation were not part of the school programme they might not engage. When they are in Church, they feel sort of awkward and have to watch the people around them so that they will not be marooned standing-up when everyone else is seated.
Finally, there are people who are baptised but who now want to have nothing to do with the Catholic Church, its beliefs, sacraments or schools. Some have asked to have their names removed from the baptismal register. They might find themselves having to attend a baptism, marriage or funeral in Church every now and again, but they do so with great reluctance or even anger.
Pope Paul VI wrote a wonderful letter entitled Ecclesiam Suam, (Christ’s Church) which he addressed to all people of goodwill. Pope Paul saw all people as belonging to a series of concentric circles with Christ as the centre. Nobody is left out. Everyone has a connection with the living, loving God. He stressed unity rather than division. The Church’s mission is centred on inviting humanity to come closer to each other and to Christ through dialogue. Pope Francis with his focus on the periphery presents a similar vision in our own day.
Christ tells us that ‘The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour till it was leavened all through.’ (Mt 13:33). A little yeast can make a lot of bread. We are a shrinking Church. Nevertheless, our faith in Christ can reach out to all the circles and mould a Church where everyone feels at home. Hopefully, the synodal pathway which we have embarked on, will awaken in people whose link to Church has faded, a reason to return, a desire to stay, a longing to belong.
This Christmas, let us re-introduce each other to Christ.
Radharc na nOileán Pastoral Area.
Clare Champion Article 17th of December 2021