THE ONE INEVITABLE feature of any news story about a decline in Mass attendance is that the official spokesman for the Church will put a brave face on it. Last week we learned that congregations at Mass dropped by 20,000 in Britain between 1988 and 1995. Last year's figure was 36,000 down on the year before. But this did not diminish the chirpy demeanour of the Catholic Media Office. "We would like to see Catholics going to church more often. But the pattern of worship is changing," it said.
It is not how I see it. The decline in Mass attendance is an unqualified disaster. It is a real, meaningful crisis for the Church, just as the falling numbers of vocations is a crisis. It marks a change for the worse in the nature of British Catholicism. Because if we have lost our devotion to the Eucharist, it means that the very core of the faith has been undermined.
What we see here is the Anglicanisation of Catholicism. The membership of the communion of faith has become the nominal adherence to a label inherited from parents, an extension of a cultural or ethnic identity, a useful means of marking social rites of passage like birth and death and marriage.
For many people, the faith means that you can have a proper white wedding in a congenial setting, the chance to send your child to a marginally more disciplined school than you might otherwise. And that's about it. The faith need not impinge on our habits of life or make regular claims upon our time.
This mortal lassitude has many causes; one is particularly important.The residual, ageing Catholic community is a product of a particular kind of education. Most practising Catholics were taught when they were very young by nuns. They gave authoritative teaching. At the age of seven we were asked who God is and why did he make us. We learned about grace, about sacraments. It was a didactic method, which did not depend entirely on our subjective understanding of life. And that didacticism is something which is pretty well absent from religious education in Catholic schools, let alone Catholic homes.
Nuns are a rare commodity now, and those who remain want to work in other areas than infant schools. Fair enough. Most women are not prepared to sacrifice their careers, sex lives and chance of motherhood in order to educate other women's children. Personally, I am in no position to criticise that choice.
But it does mean that in the absence of teaching nuns, we have to place far more emphasis on rigourous education by lay teachers in primary school. Frankly, it is not enough to farm out sacramental preparation to the parishes, to be undertaken by well-meaning but untrained laypeople of mixed ability. Religious instruction has to be just that: not self-exploration but teaching.
In one confirmation course I attended, children were told that Christ was a charismatic figure and asked to name other charismatic people they know. In communion preparation, children are asked to think of lovely meals they have had and to compare the:i with the lovely meal of the Last Supper.
This is experimental teaching gone mad. Unless we actually introduce children to the concept of sin and forgiveness, and death and resurrection, and Eucharist and re-enactment, it is not surprising that they do not see the sacraments as particularly important. It is not surprising that their sense of reverence for the Eucharist is diminished. It is not surprising that, when they grow up, they do not go to Mass.
We are living now with the collapse of authentic religious education. Devotion to the Eucharist, a sense of the importance of the Mass, an understanding of the sacraments, is not something that children will arrive at by themselves; it has to be taught and it is not being taught. Unless we do, the faith of our fathers will not be the faith of our children.