A publication of Sacred Heart University
This Is Not Fine

A Yearning to be Engaged

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore recently wrote a column titled “Half Measures” reflecting on how parishes can respond to this challenge: “Mass attendance is down. Our absent Catholics aren’t merely out of town; many are gone. For a variety of distressing reasons, they are disconnected from the Lord, the Church, the Mass and the sacraments.”

What Lori describes is familiar to Catholics in most parts of the world, and certainly in most parts of the United States, including the New England region where I live. While there are Masses that are exceptions to the rule (usually at ethnic parishes, parishes in high socioeconomic enclaves and university-based parishes), most weekly Masses are, to be blunt, boring. The music is not very good. The preaching only occasionally makes you think or really moves you, and it does a poor job of expositing the scriptures. Not many teens and young adults are in attendance. There aren’t as many people there compared to a decade ago, and the weekly donations are way down. There are many activities advertised in the bulletin, but only a small slice of parishioners participate in any of them.

This situation has everything to do with church reform. Vatican II defined the church first and foremost as the people of God (Lumen gentium, chapter 2). Accountability in the church depends on the whole people of God taking an active role. To do that, lay Catholics have to be there, and they have to care.

Yet the onus for change lies mainly on the leadership of the church. In Catholic polity, there’s little meaningful change that lay Catholics can make if the way is not cleared from above. For those lay Catholics who do yearn to be engaged, there is little structural space for their voice, participation and leadership.

As a prominent leader in the U.S. church, what does Archbishop Lori think needs to be done about this situation? Taking as a generic example a parish whose membership is shrinking, Lori says that merely adding a coffee hour after mass, nice though that is, is not bold enough. He calls for “genuine missionary conversion” and lists several practices that characterize it. Let’s look at these proposals.

“An urgent summons to prayer and repentance, first and foremost exemplified by the parish clergy and leadership.” Yes, exactly, and with even more transparency and robust involvement of lay oversight. The parish level has not really been the problem here; lay Catholics are waiting in good faith on action from the bishops.

“Concentrated attention on good preaching.” This is one of Lori’s most apt proposals. Why are Catholic homilies so routinely terrible, intellectually thin and irrelevant to the real struggles of daily life? The delivery has none of the marks of excellent public speaking. All the years of theological and biblical learning the priest has done seems to make no impact on the content. And homilies rarely mention the tremendous social and ethical teaching of the church. How many priests in the typical U.S. parish have ever once said anything about police shootings, despite the bishops’ great recent letter, Open Wide Our Hearts? Bad preaching is a major factor in leading a Catholic who wants to be a churchgoer to find another church, and it’s a key place where the Mass fails to engage young Catholics’ minds and hearts.

“Reverent liturgy; abundant opportunities for eucharistic adoration and confession.” Adoration and confession are nice, but like coffee hours, they are half measures. These activities speak mostly to the older generation, and frankly, not even to many of them. By contrast, Protestants churches of all types and sizes typically put significant resources into having excellent music at their services. A few years ago, Thomas Reese commented on what the Catholic church needs to learn from the data about its hemorrhaging membership. Reese says that “those who are leaving the church for Protestant churches,” which is about half of the fallen-away, “are more interested in spiritual nourishment than doctrinal issues…People are longing for liturgies that touch the heart and emotions. More creativity with the liturgy is needed, and that means more flexibility must be allowed.”

Lori concludes his list with a range of pastoral ministries: “Personal outreach to absent parishioners; sound catechesis for parishioners of all ages, especially the young; support of married couples and families; loving assistance to the sick and the dying; generous outreach to the poor and vulnerable; and more.” I affirm what the Archbishop is getting at here, even though he and I may have different visions for catechesis. It’s hard work, but it can be led by a pastor who empowers his parishioners. As for the laity, more of them have to step up and volunteer. But not much of the potential can be unleashed unless the bishops make room for Reese’s “flexibility and creativity” in every area of church life.

It won’t happen without much greater investment of time, money and hiring in key ministries, particularly directed to the young. As Paul Lakeland has written on this blog, what young people “encounter in the church is too often something that does not speak to their hearts or inflame their souls.” According to Reese, the “data shows that two-thirds of Catholics who become Protestants do so before they reach the age of 24. The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence.”

Lori’s oversight is his implication that the onus lies with individual parishes to implement these activities. It’s not that individual parishes shouldn’t try, and it’s not that they can’t grow more vibrant. But their grassroots efforts must be met with a huge outpouring of support, resources and changes in vision and tone from the bishops. The Archbishop is right that people are spiritually hungry and looking for authenticity. “No half measures” must be the mantra at every level of the church.

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


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Brian Stiltner

As the author of this post, I want to make a few follow-up comments. First, I am happy to say that my own pastor I consider to be one of the exceptions to poor preaching. Second, I'm aware that Catholics want a lot of different things from their services. What one parishioner thinks is a poor homily, another might really appreciate. While one might want more social-justice preaching, another wants more opportunities for praying the rosary after Mass. But the "big church" that Catholicism is should be able to meet a lot of diverse needs *if we are more bold and experimental. That will likely entail more contention and hard conversations in the church, but it's better than playing to the safe, bland middle. It seem to me that from the parish level up to diocese pastoral planning, we mostly rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. I appreciated that Archbishop Lori called for us to be bolder.

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