of parish life—
so many Catholics simply do not want to know!
THERE is one profoundly I depressing aspect of the Catholic community which must have appeared at sonic time or other to almost every thinking priest, teacher or layman engaged in the active apostolate of the Church and that is the simple fact that between 75 and 90 per cent of their supposed flock (depending' upon the leadership of a particular parish) simply do not want to know!
We have full churches, thank God. We have schools, we have relatively steady church and sacrament attendances; we have plenty of marriages and baptisms, even a certain amount of cash in the coffers though when matters like school building and church foundation are considered it begins to look less encouraging.
We are often considered by the public at large as perhaps the most "successful" Church; Catholics are still considered, in public opinion polls, to take
their religion fflOTe seriously
than others. But is this true Do the facts of our religious life today bear out these ideas. A careful study of a number of parishes might make any impartial observer gravely doubtful.
It has been fashionable since Vatican H to speak of com mitted Christians rather than practising Catholics, and this certainly envisages a rather dif ferent type of religious observance. Before this traumatic time, Catholics normally felt it their duty to at tend Mass and the sacraments, obey the laws of the Church regarding the education of their children, sex, supporting their priests, etc.
They did not see themselves LS the Church, the initiators of Christian action in their daily lives; they did not see it as their role to take the lead in charitable works in the town or nation.
Though there were outstanding exceptions, very often Christianity in all its manifestations did not seem to permeate their lives. Certainly the higher echelons of (theological or ecclesiastical life were closed firmly to them. It was hardly their business.
In theory. Vatican II changed all this. The lay person was to be encouraged to live his faith so widely and convincingly that his apostolic, witnessing role should be apparent to all men, who would see Christ in him.
In addition to this outward action. he had his full part to play within the Church, helping, advising, planning, initiating even at all levels. The documents of the Council outline these ideals with the greatest clarity. After it was all over some priests and bishops tried seriously to expound, bring in and spread widely these inspiring ideals.
Many hated and feared them and honed they would soon be forgotten. Several years after, it is perhaps apparent that many of the hopes have been dashed and many of the worst fears of excessive lay interference have been lulled.
It is interesting to speculate why this should have happened, but certain basic facts can hardly be missed by any who use their senses in almost any parish setting.
First of all it has long been apparent that though we have large communities at Mass — perhaps the largest of any Church, our working community, if we may term it such. is much, much less.
Many priests must have learnt through bitter experience that though they have a large congregation listening to them as Mass on a Sunday, fewer than 10 per cent can ever be expected to appear on any other occasion be it to attend a lecture (on any subject) undertake some vital charitable work (within the church or out of it), to hear a parish financial statement or even to clean or repar the church itself and thus save money.
In fact it does not matter what it is. apart from Sunday Mass, 90 per cent of the supposed congregation will never darken the doors again — till the following week.
Vatican II and its followers and theologians speak enthusiastically of parishes as "caring communities" — a wonderful ideal apart from the fact that most congregations do not know each other and largely have not the slightest intention of ever doing so!
Organisations designed to promote fellowship are certainly not staggeringly successful in many parishes — smallish membership of such groups as U.C.M., C.W.L., Knights of St. Columba and others for young people in comparison to the potential, bring organisers to the regretful conclusion that most Catholic Mass attenders do not "want to get involved." It is a phrase often used by people declining membership of some group.
Admittedly large parishes with numbers of Masses do render a sense of community almost physically impossible, but even were they smaller there is still the problem of the unwillingness of so many Catholics to be in any way committed to their Christian Church life.
Even those nriests most anxious to encourage lay participation at all levels have ruefully to admit that in spite of all their efforts Catholics are not
exactly falling over themselves to take part in parish councils, attend deanery meetings Of house discussion groups.
At the other end of the scale it is also hard to find people willing to snare time to visit the old and sick, do sacristy work or raise money by social activities. So it is hardly the work itself that can be faulted — rather the Catholic community's sense of dedication and commitment to his Church.
Surprisingly enough, though this phenomenon of not wanting to get too tied up in needless Church affairs is to some extent present in other Churches it is not so apparent to anything like such a wide degree. Membership of a Church to them more often entails working with and for it in other ways — they are church members in a Parish role and not just church attenders.
A higher percentage of Sunday church attenders undoubtedly take a full part in church life in the other Christian Churches than is customary in the Catholic Church, But then we have more at Church.
Perhaps here we have some key. The Sunday Mass obligation and stricter church people attending Mass who would have long since dropped away in any other Church. Is this a good or a bad thing for the Catholic community as a whole. It is hard indeed to say, but certainly it means that we cannot begin to consider anything like all our church attenders as active church members, or committed Christians.
If we feel that religious observance is a free choice to love, serve and worship God, we may perhaps feel unhappy about this state of affairs. Is it conducive to healthy Church, life; or is it better than for whatever the reason it is better for men to retain even a residual Church allegiance.
Spiritual writers often mention the matter of conversion, a turning to God, and an alteration of life style. We used frequently to talk and pray for the conversion of England, meaning a change to our form of religion.
But if it is felt that Christianity is a dynamic way of life, a change of heart, a devotion and enthusiasm for things of the spirit, do we not rather need a conversion of existing Catholics.
And here we come to the rub : because many nominal Catholics already consider themselves fully committed, almost any chance of real con,version is ruled out.
This purely outward form of Church allegiance means that never again will they face the challenge of the Christian life -whether they should take it up or leave it—live it fully with relation to their neighbours, worldly goods, the rest of the church, etc. After all, are not they already "Catholics."
This is a not unfair account of the attitudes of perhaps 80 per cent of nominal Catholics. The Catholic school, legalistic, paternalistic system has somehow processed them into this way of thinking and now when a fuller type of Christian living is expected, in many quarters it is simply not forthcoming.
They are comfortably cushioned and the cold winds of self-doubt, 'high demands, self-sacrifice and bitter slog never blow there.
Have certain basic religious obligations produced this spirit? Should we be 'better if they were scrapped? Already there is evidence that the young no longer accept this minimal "Mass on Sunday fulfils the letter of the law," Catholicism. If they do not genuinely accept and mean to live by it fully, they will not be found at Mass.
If church means little and seems simply a bore, they will not stay long. Perhaps it is undisciplined, over-emotional but surely more sincere. In years to come we are hardly likely to be faced with a large nominal congregation, 90 per cent of who will do anything to avoid total commitment. Our congregations will undoubtedly be much smaller but who is to say that we shall be worse off?