Empty Churches

Not long ago I attended a Parish Council meeting. The standard agenda items included review of previous minutes, declining attendance, lack of volunteers, insufficient building funds, fund raising results and maintenance items.

It is not the Church that must change…..but it is each individual who is called to be configured to Christ. – Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki

Not long ago I attended a Parish Council meeting.  The standard agenda items included review of previous minutes, declining attendance, lack of volunteers, insufficient building funds, fund raising results and maintenance items. I didn’t go there with the intention to make a speech or a call to action, but as I waited for Mass to begin prior to the meeting, I made a few notes and prayed that if the opportunity came to speak that the Holy Spirit would put words in my mouth and that God would inspire my fellow members.

When Mass began, we listened to the first reading from Maccabees about the woman who saw, one by one, over the course of a day, six of her sons put to death for refusing to eat pork. Instead of begging that they be spared, she spoke to each of them offering them words of encouragement to forget themselves and to persevere in their faith, so that in losing their earthly lives they may save the life for which they were created.  The only life that really matters. Antioch, the King, feeling that he was being treated with contempt, appealed to the seventh remaining son offering him riches if he would only comply. But the mother again spoke appealing to him to accept death so that he might be reunited with his brothers. Wow, that’s a faithful servant of God! Who among us could say they would do the same? Seven sons killed for eating something deemed unclean. And yet, that was what God’s law asked of them. For them to eat pork would be no different than if we were asked to desecrate a body, commit murder in cold blood, or stand on a tower and publicly denounce our God as the devil himself. It was a big thing. And then we heard the gospel acclamation from John 15;16,

“You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last; so that the Father will give you anything you ask him in my name.”

For almost 15 years, I have sat at the same parish council meeting (it’s a small community, once you volunteer for something you are pretty much in it for life), where we have discussed the same issues ad nauseam.  The only difference we have seen over those years, is that our same problems are becoming worse.  Money is tighter now than then and what we considered low attendance 15 years ago we would be overjoyed to see today.

And yet, while the problems remain the same so does our approach.  We are always looking outside to try to figure out how we can encourage people to come back to church.  We have written letters,  personally invited people back, sent out newsletters, created a website and Facebook page, held parish barbecues and potlucks, offered breakfasts and served coffee and doughnuts after Mass. We sent out surveys to find out why people are staying away.  No positive results.  For every few that come in the door, more are leaving.

So last night I offered a different approach – not for the first time, but in a much more direct manner. I suggested that before we can expect others to love and see a need for faith, perhaps we must first come to better know and love it ourselves.  People I said, have no reason to want to go to church any more because most people do not believe there is a need for them to go.  They are good people, they believe in, and love God they think.  And besides, God knows their hearts.   They would just rather spend their Sundays at the lake in summer or taking their kids to hockey tournaments in the winter.  When judgment day comes, they’re sure that they will be ready, and that God in his mercy will ensure that everyone gets to heaven. Those of us who have dug a little deeper know that isn’t necessarily a ‘given’. Even St. Paul reminds us to “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)

Jesus tells a story of a rich man who was not permitted entry. The rich man, who is nameless in the Gospel, passed by poor Lazarus each day without giving him a second thought.  He passed by him so often that after a time, he likely failed to notice that he was there at all.  Jesus does not mention any other sins for which the man was being punished, just this sin of neglect.  Likewise we will have to answer for what we fail to do in this life including failing  to seek out God, and instruct the ignorant.

If we are going to survive as a church community either locally or globally, we have to start noticing the people around us and reaching out to them in a more meaningful way. Not by offering them coffee or an uplifting homily or catchy church tune (although those things are nice), but by helping them to understand what it means to be Catholic, to be in a covenant relationship with God, the nature of sin, and the consequences of not keeping God’s commands. “Oh!” some retort “But we cannot judge!”  No, we cannot say who is in or who is going to hell.  No one but God knows that.  But we can offer guidance, the truth of our faith and fraternal correction.  But, and this is a big one, before we can do this- before we can invite people back into the church and give them reason to stay, we have to work on ourselves.  We must be examples of faith and hold ourselves to the highest standards.  Those in leadership positions – the people around the parish council tables and those acting as lectors, musicians, Eucharistic ministers, Catholic Women’s League and Knights of Columbus members, must educate themselves and live lives of faith -by being authentic Catholics.  We should be able to articulate and defend our faith.  We should not be living common-law, or be divorced and remarried without an annulment.  We should not be selective in which church teachings we accept.  We should accept them all.  We should attend Mass regularly and should avail ourselves of the sacrament of reconciliation on a regular basis.

Our priests (and some of them do these things already) must spend time carefully preparing their homilies and be courageous in addressing ‘sensitive’ items such as contraception, abortion, and same sex relationships. They can offer explanations on the Mass and emphasize the Real Presence in the Eucharist.  They can talk about the need for reconciliation, and why it is wrong to receive the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin. They can encourage reverence for the Eucharist by relocating the tabernacle to a place of prominence and by offering more opportunities for adoration. They can help people to see the body of the church as a ‘holy’ place where God is truly present in both body and spirit, and where we should encourage an atmosphere of prayer and reverence by maintaining low voices so people can pray undisturbed.  They should discuss how to receive communion – not with gum in your mouth – and explain why God gave us this great gift. They should place a greater emphasis on confession by offering it more frequently than 15 minutes on a Saturday before Mass or by appointment.  And they should, as Pope Francis said “be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”

We won’t change ourselves overnight, and we won’t see an increase in our parish overnight either.  But that doesn’t mean we should not put out some effort.  At our Parish Council table, we can begin by adding a spot for a pastoral item on our agenda.

In the end, the matter was brushed aside as requiring too much effort and personal time. And so, our agenda will not change and our problems will not change because our hearts are not open to change.