At The Catholic Thing Russell Shaw pressed on a neuralgic point in a discussion of what I call the “demographic sink hole” that is opening inexorably under the Church in these USA.
While at toward the end he brings up an optimistic angle to the crisis, the current facts are grim. Referring to recent Gallup survey numbers (HERE), Shaw reminds us that there has been a drop among self-identifying Catholics from 76% to 58% in two decades.
The American Church: Going, Going . . .
Take Sunday Mass attendance. Back in 1970, reports the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 54.9 percent of American Catholics went to Mass every Sunday. A half-century later, on the eve of the pandemic, that had fallen to 21.1 percent. And now, the Center for Church Management at Villanova University projects an attendance rate in the neighborhood of 12 percent by next year or the year after.
Who can say where this decline will bottom out? Working from pre-pandemic numbers, Stephen Bullivant in his illuminating study of Catholic “disaffiliation” in the United States and Great Britain finds Mass attendance rates in both countries declining for the last fifty years “with no sign of abating.”
The positive point?
Shaw quotes Ratzinger in 1969 about a future spiritualized and simplified Church. Then, this:
After all, as a threadbare mantra of post-Vatican II Catholicism puts it, we are an Easter people. And doesn’t dying have to come before rising, for the American Church as much as for any of us?
How many times did we hear that phrase in seminary and elsewhere. “We are an Easter people! Alleluia is our name!”
Shaw rightly underscores that, before “Alleluia!” comes “Eli! Eli! Lama sabachthani?”
Which of those are we experiencing as a Church right now?
In this time of kenotic simplification, one group of Catholics in these USA is growing and growing strong: Catholics who want traditional sacred worship. The numbers are encouraging. During the last year quite a few younger priests have learned the traditional form of Holy Mass and have implemented it in their parishes. I don’t think we have accurate stats right now, because many of these initiatives have been handled quietly.
Two things are absolutely necessary to carry this forward, for the good of the Church and, frankly, the nation, is for these good people – who just want to be Catholic – to commit themselves to solid involvement in their parishes and chapels, not merely to drive in on Sunday and drive away until the next Sunday.
Firstly, never underestimate the power of an invitation. By that I mean that you should be inviting to others to go with you to Holy Mass or to church for confession and other events. Invitations can be grace-filled, pivotal, life-altering moments. COVID has demoralized many. It’s time to get to work.
Then, “be ready to give reasons for the hope that is in you”. And, going on with the next part of that line from 1 Peter 3:15: “do it with gentleness and reverence”. The Greek says, with prautes (mildness of disposition, humility) and phobos (fear, reverence). To do that, you have to expand your knowledge of what you are about, your Cult, Code and Creed. When you love something you want to share it with others. When you love something you want to know more about it. Perhaps this can be accomplished by forming “base communities” of authentic faith which will meet regularly to go over catechisms, current and traditional, and Scripture with reliable Catholic tools.
Consider these two imperatives in light of concrete encounters with new-comers at your TLM church or chapel.
Engaging with new-comers to a TLM is a liminal moment. Some may be coming because they were invited, others out of curiosity. No matter the motive, their arrival among you could be a pivotal faith life event for those new-comers.
It may be that what they experience there changes their lives.
You can be of help in that moment or you can harm.
What’s it going to be?
“With gentleness and reverence”. With gentleness because these are people and these are tough times. With reverence because this is in some way or another a Spirit-filled moment, not to be underestimated or squandered.
In his piece at The Catholic Thing, Shaw quoted Ratzinger:
On the brink of what may strike many as a gloomy future, it’s helpful to recall a prescient utterance by Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI), back in 1969.
Though he has been frequently quoted as predicting that “the Church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning,” and adding that the process of shrinkage would be “hard going” and involve “tremendous upheavals,” he nonetheless also said this:
When the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. [People who had lost sight of God] will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.