The Sunday Following

In a flip-flop from most parishes in the US, mine is looking forward to a surge in numbers next weekend — as students return for classes on the 11th. It’s been an adjustment to gear myself for smaller crowds at the Masses of the Christmas season. Christmas and Holy Family weekend are not heavy with pewfolk for us.

I was thinking to the crowds of thousands we handled at my old parish in Kansas City: seven Masses in twenty hours. I remarked to one of our pastors once, “What if all these people came back for Holy Family. Wouldn’t that be a Christmas miracle?” I didn’t get a positive reaction.

But, you know, why shouldn’t we Catholics think that way? Is the music we offer a cantor-n-organ sigh of relief after the big sounds of December 24 and 25? How much time goes into preparing a homily when the last Christmas Mass finishes up Friday midday? How many priests advise their Christmas congregations, “We’re sorry if you came too late to find a seat and were uncomfortable. If you come back this weekend, I guarantee we’ll have room for you.”

The only problem would be if the multitudes all responded to that invitation.

I was following a St Blog’s discussion on this theme. Zach seems convinced this is a question of knowledge and information. If only people knew their souls were in mortal danger from missing Mass on Sunday … they would show up. Count me a doubter on that score. I think people know what the Church’s position on Mass attendance is. The problem isn’t knowledge. The problem is that most inactive Catholics don’t care, don’t feel welcome, and have gotten out of a habit. Plus, having gone five, ten, or thirty years without getting hit by lightning, there is a credulity factor.

An objection to the notion that I promoted advertising–I don’t–I actually favor evangelization. Another objection was raised to the thought that we should encourage inactive Catholics to come back.

I don’t think Catholicism is going to recover its American Golden Age by retreating to the 1950’s in preaching, music, and liturgy. Let’s not forget this is the age that didn’t generate sticking power. People left the Church in the 60’s and early 70’s–an era where folk Masses were the distinct minority of offerings in parishes. So you can’t easily blame clowns, guitars, or sisters in polyester. I’d say that conservative Catholics have allowed their own expectations to be lowered: let’s score a few dozen Anglicans and hail the pope as a True Ecumenist Extraordinaire.

I do think Christmas and Easter are good times to encourage people to come and to return the next week. We can realistically promise less crowding. (Well, you can; but I can’t.) Can we maintain our liturgical stamina to make Holy Family Sunday and the Second Sunday of Easter even more sparkling to souls looking for meaning, purpose, and grace?

Speaking of which, this weekend, is a pretty big feast, no lower than number 4 for Western Christians, and at least top ten even if you include Super Bowl Sunday, Catechetical Weekend, and Ash Wednesday. Any of you clergy or pewfolk see returnees last weekend or this? I’d say if they make it a trifecta next Sunday, take ’em out for brunch.

Or maybe you think the Church deserves full pews every Sunday and we don’t need or shouldn’t lift a finger to get them. Go ahead: make your case.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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35 Responses to The Sunday Following

  1. Michael says:

    If only people knew their souls were in mortal danger from missing Mass on Sunday … they would show up. … The problem is that most inactive Catholics don’t care, don’t feel welcome, and have gotten out of a habit. Plus, having gone five, ten, or thirty years without getting hit by lightning, there is a credulity factor.

    Not to mention that most people, myself included, think it’s a con job by the Church in order to pump up revenue. Is my soul in danger from missing Mass? No. Not at all. The bishops have no credibility, and, truth be told, have never deserved credibility. They have much less than any worker in a soup kitchen, the Pope included.

  2. Zach says:

    “Zach seems convinced this is a question of knowledge and information. If only people knew their souls were in mortal danger from missing Mass on Sunday … they would show up.”

    I do not think this and I do not think this. I think that one thing that we can do that would help is educate people in the truth. What I have in mind is not a simple recitation of the Church’s teaching on the Third Commandment. It’s something more like a proposal.

    Also – I admit I misunderstood your remark about evangelization. It sounded to me like you wanted the Church to engage in some sort of advertising and I now see clearly that that is not the case. And I never raised an objection about inviting people to come back to Mass.

    And I am utterly opposed to the idea that “we should not do anything” to get people to come back to Mass. I’m not sure where you got this idea, but I hope it’s one you do not associate with me or any of the people who write at AC.

  3. Zach says:

    Michael, you can think it’s a con-job all you like, but that’s not true. It’s the Third Commandment.

    If you miss Mass without a serious reason your soul is in danger, as is mine if I do the same. If you are a Catholic Mass attendance is a fundamental necessity. You can deny the Teaching Authority of the Church, but if you are a Catholic, you are then denying the legitimacy of revelation (specifically Magisterial Teaching), and this is tantamount to denying the Holy Spirit.

  4. Patti says:

    People can rationalize anything. Amazing.

  5. reddog says:

    God doesn’t care if you go to mass and the Pope has no more pull with God and is probably no better person than any maimed, illiterate beggar on the streets of Calcutta.

    Telling people obvious lies, even if they are written down in a book somewhere is what got the Church into the trouble they are today. Nobody believes the Church about anything.

    People go to mass on holidays because there are still a few old people in the family that expect it and it makes them feel better. Once they are dead, the churches will be no more relevant or attended to than roadside historical markers.

  6. Micha Elyi says:

    “I don’t think Catholicism is going to recover its American Golden Age by retreating to the 1950’s in preaching, music, and liturgy.”

    Beating up on the 1950s is such a tired cliché. Whatever the drawbacks of the Church in the 1950s were, the “preaching, music, and liturgy” was superior to what is offered today. Was a lot of preaching from the pulpit back then bad? Sure, but we get none today, only homilies and those are typically wishy-washy. The music was certainly superior back then, it may have been bad in the typical parish but in today’s typical parish the music has gone to worse. The liturgy was certainly different in the 1950s, what hurt most in my opinion was not the introduction of a new Ordinary Form but the simultaneous decline in the reverence with which the mass was celebrated.

    “Let’s not forget this is the age that didn’t generate sticking power. People left the Church in the 60’s and early 70’s–an era where folk Masses were the distinct minority of offerings in parishes.”

    The lack of “sticking power” only goes to show that most Catholics in America had been poorly catechised well before the 1950s. When folk masses appeared, they signaled to more than one generation in the pews that had been raised with a less-serious commitment to the faith that the Church was unserious about the faith too. Sure, not every mass was folky but it only takes one drop of poison to ruin every meal brought to the table.

    “I think people know what the Church’s position on Mass attendance is. The problem isn’t knowledge. The problem is that most inactive Catholics don’t care, don’t feel welcome, and have gotten out of a habit.”

    We can all guess. How about asking some real lapsed-Catholics?

    • Todd says:

      As a matter of fact, I’ve talked with many such Catholics–those who have returned to active church life, and those who haven’t yet gotten there. It’s not guesswork.

  7. Zach says:

    “Telling people obvious lies, even if they are written down in a book somewhere is what got the Church into the trouble they are today.”

    What is an obvious lie? That a for Catholic intentionally skipping Mass is a mortal sin? This is not a lie and I’m sorry you see it that way. This is the Third Commandment.

    You can pretend it’s not true all you want, but the truth does not change. You are denying yourself something great. Think: why does the Church have this teaching? Is it to punish us with boring sermons? Is it to make us pay more money? If you were to give the Church the benefit of the doubt, what do you think the Church would say?

  8. Todd says:

    The referenced commandment went far beyond temple worship for the Jews. It certainly doesn’t mention “Mass.” How the Christian Sabbath is kept holy is an excellent discussion to have. But the Catholic premise that a believer must attend Mass is an interpretation on a commandment, not the text of Scripture itself.

  9. Zach says:

    And I agree with Todd – that’s absolutely true. It is the interpretation of the Holy Spirit who speaks through the Church. Thus, it is an interpretation with Divine Authority.

  10. Anne says:

    The church also continues to interpret and re interpret scripture as time goes on. That is not to say that Sunday Eucharist is not an obligation. It is. What changes is how we see our obligation. There should be a hunger for the Eucharist. Everyone should feel welcomed. Open our doors and hearts by putting serious emphasis on the peace and healing of this sacrament. Threatening with mortal sin only shuts the doors.

  11. Zach says:

    Anne: I think you’re right that how we see our obligation changes. For example, you see the objective fact that intentionally missing Mass is a mortal sin as a threat. I see it as an invitation and motivation. I do not think the Church should threaten us. I think it should inform us and guide us and teach us, and it should not ignore or “tone-down” the truth, lest any of us misunderstand and be led astray.

    • Harry says:

      Zach, I won’t go into all the reasons for missing Mass (sickness, auto breakdown, blizzard, whatever) that might mitigate the “objective” mortal sin.

      I do however find it rather odd that so many people think so little of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary that it could be nullified by a decision to sleep in on one Sunday during a long and good lifetime.

      • Zach says:

        Harry: that’s why I wrote intentionally skipping Mass.

        I don’t think Christ’s sacrifice is nullified. I think mortal sin is the soul refusing God.

      • Harry says:

        Well, Zach, isn’t sleeping in one Sunday intentionally missing Mass?

        How about the case of the teenager or young adult who are rebelling against their parents far more than they are refusing God? How about the person, rightly or wrongly, who rationalizes that they are living good, Christian, God-centered lives and see no need to attend Mass on Sunday.

        Wouldn’t that fall under “invincible ignorance”?

        You see, I just don’t see how you can look at the objective fact that a person missed Mass on Sunday and concluce that all of the elements of mortal sin were present.

  12. Todd says:

    Mortal sin must include the direct and willful rejection of God. Perhaps a new statement on Sundya Mass is needed to reach some folks.

    Instead of being a sin to miss Mass, perhaps we should speak of celebrating Mass as being a spiritual good. And if indeed it is, then preachers, musicians, and others should be urged to putting their talents to work in that light, of providing a spiritual good for others.

    Indeed, even those of us who faithfully attend Mass do not escape from the obligations of hospitality and evangelization. It would seem we are all deficient in some way.

    Let’s call it even, morally speaking, and get to work on bringing people back to church, individually, one by one, and with the same intent effort we put into praying about it.

    • Tony says:

      I think this is the dictatorship of moral relativism that the Pope spoke of.

      “I can be pro-choice if I help the poor”

      “I can skip mass if I work for social justice”

      Helping the poor and working for social justice are good things. I should do more of them. But intentionally missing mass is a specific and concrete slap to God. It says you have something to do that you believe is more important than him and if that isn’t the definition of mortal sin, I don’t know what is.

      Also, the Holy Mass as celebrated by validly promulgated rubrics is perfect in itself. We don’t need to ramp up the “entertainment value” to try and get more shallow asses in the seats. We need to bring the message to others and make them want to attend Mass not because of what they “get out of it”, but the fact that worship of almighty God is what they owe Him.

      Getting distracted people in church by coming up with new and innovative gimmics does not increase the worship of God or save a single soul.

      (I’m open to the argument that once their butts are in the seat, they can be evangelized more effectively, but I have yet to see a church that concentrates on the “externals” that actually does that.)

      • Todd says:

        Well, I don’t see anything in this discussion, certainly nothing in what I’ve promoted on this site as being entertainment or gimmickry.

        To further the discussion, and Tony, you’re always welcome here to further it, you need to address the actual issues being discussed. Otherwise, this is just a backwater, the notion that liturgy must be entertaining. An urban legend at best.

  13. Zach says:

    OK some precision was apparently lost. Intentionally skipping mass is a grave sin. It’s not necessarily mortal because I do not know the subjective state of the person who does it nor do I know the circumstances (maybe the person is sick). I did not mean to say it was always a mortal sin – you’re right.

  14. Zach says:

    Err.. it’s at least a grave matter… not a grave sin. whoops again.

  15. One of the things I always think about is the history of Christianity and the fact that we have regular Sunday obligations is a rather recent phenomena. I think one of the reasons why many people are used to not going to church throughout the year is because of tradition, tradition which goes back centuries to pre-modern times, when most people could not make it to church but once a year.While the situation is different now, I do think the influence of the past is still upon us.

  16. Liam says:


    The preceptual obligation to attend Mass (as distinct from the obligation to receive Communion) on Sunday dates at least to the 4th century. Obviously, where the fulfilling the obligation involved undue hardship, one was not obliged; and that is still the case. But the obligation is not a recent phenomenon in the Roman Catholic church. I don’t see where in Europe or North America (other than very remote areas) there is a long-lived cultural inheritance of hardship of the sort you appear to envision.

  17. Liam

    The whole idea of obligation has changed significantly through the years. The Orthodox, for example, really have a very different notion, and find the West’s understanding of obligation to be legalistic. I would tend to agree. It is not that I dispute the Church has an authority to make such obligations, but rather, we still need to look into the greater situation.

    Any examine of a typical medieval Christian would find a situation far different than most people would expect. Maybe they would go to mass once a year (things were different in urban areas, to be sure), and that is why there is the notion of obligation for one eucharist/year. One of the things many people who examine the history of Christian worship and attendance is that things are not so different today as with other times, which should point out there is something there– and I really do think it is a tradition, a mentality which has followed through into our times, even if there is less reason for it.

  18. Liam says:


    I understand that the Orthodox have a different notion, but I think the idea that a significant proportion of even medieval Catholics (outside the few areas that were late being fully churched, like Lithuania) would go to Mass once a year is stretching things mightily. Preindustrial people were quite used to walking many miles a day (though highways – a specific subset of routes – remained places of danger of course). Baptisms were, for example, regularly performed soon after most births, and that would not have been easily if most people were too remote.

    (My grandmother, just over 100 years ago, would walk back and forth from her Irish village to the market town to sell butter – about 9km each way; her parish church was only 2km away in the other direction, admittedly.) While I’ve seen the bounds of what my I recall how even here in Boston that John Adams and his sons would walk back and forth from Boston proper to Braintree (now Quincy) on a daily basis at times – over 7 miles each way (less than 2 hours each way for those used to such walking).

    I frankly don’t see even the slightest hint of what you describe in our current Sunday attendance situation, at least in the First World.

    Again, this is putting very much aside the issue of participation in the sacrament of Communion.

    Now, if we want to discuss the attendance habits of men versus women & children, there might be some connection with longer term trends. But it wasn’t about the church being so remote that people attended but once a year.

  19. Liam says:

    Sorry for the many typos in the prior comment.

  20. Liam

    The point is that the tradition was in place LONG before the families came to the Americas. We have to look beyond the ability of the modern world, and look exactly as the typical situation of the normal, illiterate Christian who didn’t live in an urban center. They would have festivities, but weekly Sunday mass? No. Some really did only get a mass only once a year, because of the limited availability of priests. This I am sure has had long lasting social impact, just as with other traditions (calling liturgy, mass, for example, in English).

    What has struck me is that there were differences from locality to locality. Reading the English example, for example, in Stripping of the Altars presents one side of it. Reading what happened in Constantinople in the 4th century certainly presents a different side. But then there is the 13th century Ukraine. What was it like there? 14th century Spain, in the Basque region. What exactly was it there? The modern situation has changed accessibility just as it has changed literacy.

    Anyway — I don’t have my “examples” on hand for what I am thinking about, so I will have to leave it at that. I am thinking way beyond 100, 200 years, but 1000 years and the socialization which happened there. Reading the way secularization thesis of europe has been criticized by people who read the records of European mass attendance (I think it was Stark? I don’t remember) several years ago really provided this eye-opening vision of the average Christian life.

  21. Liam says:


    Being fairly steeped in medieval history (and the settlement patterns of different eras therein), I was coming at it it from that perspective, albeit more focused on the Catholic world than you are (and that’s where the conversation about Mass attendance is centered here anyway). There were churches in Greenland, after all (the first Catholic diocese in the New World was planted in Gardar in the early 12th century!).

    I would be interested in that work on Mass attendance. Once a year sounds outside the norm for places outside the Slavic and Scandinavian frontiers, and mountain (or the very odd desert, as in SW France) zones. Most of the people who came here are not descended from people from such places.

    I suspect you are making much more of a cautionary qualification than might be there.

  22. Liam says:

    Ah, I realize why you might have thought I was thinking only recent history: my grandmother lived in the poorest and most depopulated county of Ireland (Leitrim), fairly given over the wilderness in many places after the Great hunger – I chose it as an example because it was a vivid visual in my mind of a more medieval reality in terms of settlement density.

    Of course, the period after the Black Death is one where there was a great disruption. (Also, in eastern Europe, after the Mongol invasions of the mid-13th century – one reason parts of Poland were not as badly hurt by the 14th century is because they were so badly hurt a century earlier.)

  23. I don’t know why the link isn’t working on your end, because when I click it, it is working on mine. Odd.

    It is “Secularization, RIP.” You should be able to find it online.

    • Liam says:

      That helped. Stark, as he likes to be provocative, strings together anecdotal quotes about the medieval eras, but his hard evidence is for the early modern period especially the Anglican church which was rather notoriously flabby. I would really need to bore into the sources for the medieval period to see how unqualified their judgments are. That’s of course beyond us here. But I would at this point still take Stark more as a caution against assuming universally high attendance, not a as a case in chief for widespread low attendance. Just my historian’s intuition as I read that article.

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