Those empty pews, a failure?
The signs were all around and the outcome of the Church survey on Sunday Mass attendance came as no surprise. Just under 37 per cent of the Catholic population attends Mass on Sunday. So much for Catholic Malta, its festas and the fireworks.
The decline in Sunday Mass attendance, ongoing for years, is expected to reach a mere 10 per cent by 2040. A sad prospect for an institution that still dominates the skyline in the same way it once dominated the lives of the faithful for centuries. But no more.
That young people are staying away in droves appears to seal the fate for the Church. But the trend may not be irreversible; it is just very hard to combat. The headlines all point in the wrong direction. Marriage separations are outnumbering Church marriages. More students are opting out of religion classes in schools. People are finding out they can do without a Church. The logic does not work the other way around. The Church is the people and their faith.
Strangely, it is not religion that is going out of fashion but the institution itself, or what it does. A Misco study about a year ago, found that 92 per cent of respondents claimed to follow the Catholic religion but they certainly do not do so from the pews. They can do without the Sunday sermons but do not discard the religion.
Rituals do flow spontaneously from faith but when they feel meaningless, the faithful look elsewhere. If symbols and rituals are to be meaningful, they cannot be imposed but experienced. Otherwise, they lose all meaning, and with them the Church. The very carnival that ended this week is intrinsically linked to Church heritage – the start of Lent – but has lost meaning.
Christianity gives supernatural value to the rhythms and daily events of individual existence. If people do not get that in church on Sunday they will not go. They are interested in finding meaning to the sometimes senseless world they leave outside. Sacraments are manifestations of the unseen and the divine. If people do not see that from the pews, there is something intrinsically wrong.
The issue has nothing to do with impressive sermons on Sunday mornings, or with liturgy or music or grand architecture. They all help but can be found elsewhere and with more convenience. The search of the faithful is for meaning for everything around them. And if the Church is seen to have lost that, it has effectively lost everything.
Getting people back to fill the pews is not an easy feat. Apart from the spiritual aspects and the feeling of community that Mass evokes, it is primarily a celebration. People get out of it what they themselves put into it. At Mass they receive God in two ways, the liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist. It is not entertainment, there is much of that around.
Reviving Sunday Mass is not improving the entertainment aspect or the convenience. Mass has meaning to people of faith. Strengthening the faith will strengthen the Mass. The pews are filled by believers, not a passive audience of onlookers. The Church has a tough challenge ahead.
Sunday Mass is not a tradition, or a habit. It is an act of faith.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial