A few weeks ago, I saw this Rhode Island Catholic piece by Emily Donohue featured on the CNS News Hub, and I’ve wanted to post on it for awhile. This is my last “free” time before Christmas, so here are my thoughts.
Bob Dixon, director of the Australian Pastoral Projects Office, came to speak with Providence diocesan clergy and laity last month. As many Catholic parishes face declining Mass attendance, concerned people look for reasons.
Dixon’s country isn’t doing nearly as well as the US in Mass attendance. Does he have anything we need to hear? Do the reasons Catholics don’t go to Mass in Australia give us Americans a clue?
A 1996 survey queried almost 4,500 Catholic school parents. Their number one answer for not attending Mass? 54% said they “no longer feel being a committed Catholic requires going to Mass every week.” Rather than simply divide Catholics into “active” and “lapsed,” Dixon says in his country, a significant third group don’t attend Mass regularly but still consider themselves committed Catholics.
I think some Catholics would be quick to categorize this third group into the blanket second category of not-us: the lapsed, the heterodox, the heretics, the liberals, etc.. Not so fast, I think. Dixon and his research team interviewed forty-one inactive Catholics in depth. All over Australia, they asked questions and listened. The team wanted to dig deeper into the reasons why self-identified Catholics no longer worship on Sunday—and no longer feel it’s necessary to do so and be a good Catholic.
The top reasons given: the irrelevance of the Church, the misuse of the Church’s power and authority – including clergy sex predators and the cover-up by bishops, the role of women, problems with a particular priest, lack of intellectual stimulation, i.e. boring or repetitive homilies, concerns about the parish, especially a lack of welcome, a sense of exclusion by Church rules.
Dixon also studied how people evolve into inactivity. It often happens gradually, with people missing an occasional Sunday, then missing more often until significant time lapses between going to church. Dixon found that many of those surveyed lacked an adult faith, something that contributed to the “crisis of faith” many interviewees described to the survey team.
Dixon also found that many middle-aged adults cease church attendance once their children are grown. No need to keep up appearances for the kids? Or does discipline falter as empty-nesters reorganize their own lives?
Is there any good news from Down Under? Most inactive Catholics were open to return to regular Massgoing. What would bring them back? “Let’s do some inviting,” Dixon said.
“We’re in a culture that’s not friendly to the values that we hold high. And the problem is only exacerbated as the Mass-attending population continues to age and young people continue to fall away from the Church,” Dixon said. “As the proportion of young people who are at Mass diminishes and they move on into mid-life and have children, their children have less chance to be socialized in the Church.”
Like good editing, I don’t think clergy and pastoral ministers can rely on anything other than their own hard work to bring inactive Catholics back to Mass. Clearly, the young aren’t the only problem. Dixon’s mention of it is the first time I’ve heard of empty-nesters ditching church after their kids are gone? Do you think this is true elsewhere besides Australia?