A recent document ("newsletter") from the Catholic Diocese of Townsville (Queensland) titled Partnership - a vision of hope, dated December 1993 and produced by the Townsville Pastoral Planning and Formation Commission, asks in regard to Mass attendances, "Where have all the people gone?"
The situation in Townsville mirrors that of other Australian dioceses, except that policies followed there in recent decades seem to have been generally more 'liberal' (as, for example, in Rockhampton and Adelaide) than in other dioceses. Coincidentally, its Mass attendance rate is lower than an already low national average.
The Townsville document contains Mass attendance statistics for 1986-1993, together with commentary and material in praise of "Small Christian Communities" which the Commission appears to regard as the solution to the Church's ills.
Nowhere in the document is there any hint that 'reforming' policies pursued over the past 20 years in liturgy, religious education, seminary and religious life, biblical studies and moral teaching might be contributors to the disaster represented by the Mass attendance statistics.
The Catholic population of the Townsville diocese, according to government Census Data for 1991, was 69,241. In calculating comparative rates of Mass attendance between 1986 and 1993, one assumes that the population figures would be correspondingly greater or less than in 1991.
In 1986 - making allowance for gaps in the newsletter's listed figures for individual population centres - there were about 11,500 at Sunday Mass (during one or other of the diocesan counts taken in March and September) out of a total Catholic population of probably around 65,000. This produces a weekly attendance rate of 17.5%.
In 1991, the number at weekly Mass had fallen to about 9,000 (allowing for one missing location). This was out of a Census total of 69,241, and gives a rate just short of 13%. In 1993, with the Catholic population presumably further increased to somewhere over 70,000, the total at weekly Mass (allowing for the aforementioned gaps) totalled around 8,500, giving a rate of close to 12%. The latter figure is confirmed in the newsletter: "The total figures for our diocese indicate that almost 3000 people who used to worship in 1986 are not doing so in 1993. Will the next seven years bring a similar drop in numbers? How many will be worshipping in the year 2000?" A similar rate of decline in Townsville could see a Mass attendance rate of 6-8% by the year 2000.
But whether we are looking at the Melbourne Archdiocese - with a decline from 26% to 20.5% over the same period - or Townsville, the drop from Australia's average Mass attendance figures of around 50-60% a generation ago is nothing short of catastrophic, indeed scandalous, especially since, as Br Marcellin Flynn notes in his latest published research (see February AD2000), a person's Mass attendance correlates with commitment to a range of other Catholic beliefs and practices.
Loss of faith
The Townsville document heads its commentary on the statistics "Where have all the people gone?" and follows this with a series of questions aimed at shedding light on the problem, e.g., "Do we walk with people as they take each difficult step to join in a worshipping gathering?"; "When we gather, what is our attitude to people we do not know? Do we only speak with those we know? Do we find it difficult to greet strangers? Do we make a point of greeting someone we do not know each time we gather?"; "How does each of us personally witness 'God-with-us' to those in our family, workplace, leisure environments, etc? Do we 'bible-bash' people, embarrass them or are we really being 'Christ present' to them?"
No one, of course, would want to dismiss such worthy considerations, but they fall short of tackling what is today a deep-seated crisis of loss of faith in the Catholic Church.
Next, after acknowledging a few possible contributing factors such as the effects of the media, peer pressure, drugs, alcohol, etc., the Townsville document produces its trump card for overcoming the crisis: "Small Christian Communities." This approach, it says, "is one way in which the Church is transforming the world. This is one way that parishes are discovering that people can act together and reflect together to make the world the kind of place that Jesus gave his life for. It is in these Small Christian Communities that the real issues (our emphasis) often come to light - the violence in the family, unemployment, abuse of children, poverty, marriage unhappiness ... Perhaps if parishes made a conscious commitment to forming Small Christian Communities (i.e., that the parish become a 'communion of communities') many issues will be resolved and by the year 2000 our Church would not be raising questions about the decline in numbers. It will be a radically different Church, but, hopefully, one that is vibrant, lifegiving and energising."
Perhaps. But until the fundamental problem of loss of faith is tackled at its roots in shoddy religious education, priestly training, liturgy, theological studies, and the like, no amount of surface 'restructuring' will arrest the slide in Australian Catholicism's practising membership towards sect status.
In secular life, bureaucrats and politicians have to resign when their policies fail. This is not the case in the Catholic Church, for as Mass attendances continue to fall all over Australia, the usual response from those in charge is not to admit to any fundamental policy mistakes, but to insist that existing policies only need to be further radicalised to overcome the problem. This seems to be the case in Townsville.
Just how much further Mass attendances must decline in Townsville and elsewhere before botched reforms are halted and admissions of failure forthcoming is not yet clear, but we shouldn't hold our breath.