Those involved with Catholic liturgy focus heavily on what the people in the pews want, how they are responding to the music and homily, how they regard the various ceremonies, and whether and to what extent are they involved. The mantra at nearly every conference and teaching session on liturgy is that we must maintain a single minded focus on encouraging "full, active, conscious participation" – of the people who happen to be there at the time.
The focus is disproportionate to the extent that it draws attention away from the whole purpose of liturgy—to glorify God and celebrate sacred mysteries—and toward the well-being of the community, and, further, it invites a kind of hubris that we are manufacturing liturgy rather than receiving it as a gift that we have the responsibility to treasure and hand on to the next generation.
But here I would like to focus on a more mundane problem associated with an exclusive focus on the people in the pews. It forgets that sizeable number of Catholics who are not in the pews. It keeps us thinking only about the visible and the seen people who warm the pews rather than the invisible and unseen people who do not attend at all. In fact, as compared with those who attend faithfully, there might be a larger number of Catholics who are not in the pews in our parishes but who should be.
What are we doing for them? How can they be drawn back? These questions alone are not the kinds of issues that parishes like to think about.
I can recall some years ago attending a parish council meeting where people were reading through a report on demographic trends in my town and how they were affecting parish needs. The entire report was based on the existing membership rolls and how they had changed and how they were likely to change in the future at current rates of growth.
The entire focus was on those who come to Mass now, without the slightest concern giving to the likely equal number of Catholics in the community who do not come to Mass, to say nothing of the vast numbers who have been drawn to other forms of worship.
I raised the point. There was a long period of confused silence. Then the meeting continued as before. If I were a mind reader, I suspect that most people present were thinking something along the lines of: "that's an interesting issue but it has nothing to do with us. We are the community. We can't do anything about those unknown and unseen people who do not wish to be part of our community. Can we please move on with this meeting without any more of these distractions involving abstractions?"
Still, it is about time that we consider the fate of those many millions who have been dropped from the rolls as they decades have moved on. In the 1950s, 3 out of 4 Catholics attended Mass every week. The estimates range between 70 and 80 percent. Today, the numbers have nearly flipped: only 1 in 3 Catholics attend Mass every week. When we look at this big picture we see a devastating picture of collapse. The line on the graph isn't shaped like fall off a cliff but rather one long slide, year after year. It occurred quickly in terms of the whole history of Christianity but slowly in terms of our own lives, slowly enough, in any case, that we are tempted not to bother with thinking about it.
Breaking the data down further, the pictures becomes at once more revealing and more frightening. Of those with experience before the Second Vatican Council, 52 percent currently attend Mass weekly – which means that we lost half and retained half of these people. That sounds grim but compare to those whose first experience at Mass follow the Council: the figure is 38 percent. The worst demographic of all are those age 18 to 30. Only 21 percent attend weekly.
(chart and full report at CARA, Georgetown University)
Interesting isn't it? The upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s were justified largely based on the desperate need of young people for a liturgical experience that meets their needs and speaks to a new generation. Apparently the "new generation" didn't much like what they heard, because they left in droves. Meanwhile, the strongest attachments to the Catholic Church can be observed among those raised in a liturgical environment widely decried for its failure to connect to people and its propensity to foster alienation. These are the survivors who cling to the memorized portions of the Baltimore Catechism for sustenance in difficult times.
Knowing nothing other than these facts, one can easily conclude that the conventional wisdom is complete wrong and that the truth is the reverse of what we've been told. The hip and happening style at Mass backfired and emptied the Church. It is the "bad old days" that instilled deeper attachments. The proper direction for change, then, is to recover what we lost.
Ah, but hold on a moment, say the professional sociologists of the Catholic Church: this is too obvious a conclusion. A more sophisticated understanding must take account of the dramatic demographic changes including immigration that occurred, the massive cultural shifts that took place, and the new philosophy of public life that changed the way people perceive the truth value of Christian worship. In fact, they say, the trends would look even worse if the liturgy had not adapted itself to new times.
Counterfactuals such as this can be the source of endless debates precisely because there is no way to prove who is correct here. But it strikes me as painfully disingenuous to discount the negative effects of a revolution in ritual. If you change the ritual, even in ways that people think they might like, it still has the effect of breaking the spell and severing psychological and sociological attachments. If a ritual can be so easily changed by a committee or two and the stroke of a pen, the message it conveys is that the ritual really isn't as important as it was made out to be.
The persistence of ritual through the ages is crucial important in every culture but even more so in older cultures such as Spain and Italy where Mass attendance is much lower than it is in the United States. The changes that followed the Council here had the effect of discrediting the liturgical experience itself. People still keep the rituals in their homes and in their private lives but what takes place at Sunday Mass is disconnected in important ways from what many generations had known. The other cultural factors that people cite as causative forces are mere precipitating events: once the ritual was changed, people more easily gave into the secular cultural trends.
Back in the United States, most people have encountered many who left the Church after the Council. I've had several dozen or so conversations over the years with people who have left and sought out the reasons. Yes, these people are glad to dismiss Catholic teaching on moral and doctrinal issues, but what stands out time and again are the tales of how the ghastly aesthetic trends of the time invaded their Churches. They tell of guitar strummers and faux-folk music and bongos and beat poets and hippy bands and, later, saccharine sweety-sweet tunes and felt banners, liturgical dancers, flag wavers, and bare-footed incense bowl carriers and the like.
At some point, these people just couldn't take it anymore. Having left, it becomes easier to manufacture reasons why the Catholics are wrong on just about everything else from morality to priestly celibacy to the role of the Pope and the financial corruption of the whole apparatus. They read the novels of Dan Brown and think: I was right to leave! At this point, people are just looking for good excuses to justify their unwillingness to be subjected week after week to Woodstock Lite.
Now let us turn to the question of how we are going to get these people back. I'm not under any illusions here. Turning the clock back to recreate the world of 1958 is not going to suddenly create a massive influx into the Catholic Church. Even a widespread proliferation of extraordinary form Masses is not a magic bullet to cause the pews to fill up next week. A widespread availability of the old form of Mass is probably the best step that can be taken but it is not the whole answer.
What needs to happen is a consistent embrace of solemnity and mystery in the liturgy, whether it in the ordinary or extraordinary form, week after week, backed by strong educational programs and a parish culture that is not shy to embrace the glories and beauties of the faith and its capacity for creating lasting social bonds. As for immigrant cultures, the liturgy must be purged of its "bourgeois America" (or middleclass Portland and Chicago) quality that became its de facto cultural identity in the 1980s and 1990s; this is profoundly alienating to many in a multicultural world.
Even the best environment here is not going to cause an influx but it does mean that when the unseen people, the people not in the pews, happen to come to the parish for a wedding or funeral or Christmas or Easter, they experience something lovely and interesting, something that piques their curiosity and entices the aesthetic imagination. They might still object to Catholic teaching and the institutions but they might feel a greater draw to return in the future.
This is the way to minister to the people not in the pews: assist in creating and sustaining an environment that offers something radically different from what can be found anywhere in the secular world. Then the Catholics have something to offer, something of value that only the faith can offer.
The parable of the pearl of great price tells of a man who found a pearl of immense value, and once he did, he sold everything else in order to buy it. So it is in our parish liturgy: only once it is discovered as a thing of immense value will people once again be willing to make the sacrifice to own it again and make it a permanent part of their lives.