In the June 2004 issue of 'The Review', Bishop Brian Heenan of Rockhampton, Queensland, called for answers to the question of falling attendances at Sunday Masses under the heading of "Where have all the people gone?"
The following analysis is provided by Fr Martin Durham, a retired priest of the Diocese of Rockhampton.
There are undoubtedly a number of reasons why the practice of religion has decreased across the board over the past 30 or so years. Chief among these would be the increasing inroads made by materialism and secularism in our Western culture and society.
According to this secular mind-set, God is no longer regarded as necessary in our highly advanced technological world. There are no longer any moral absolutes; morality is relative: "Do what makes you feel good, and don't do what you don't feel like doing."
However, the fact remains that human beings are composed of matter and spirit - a mortal, material body and an immortal, spiritual soul. It stands to reason and common sense that the yearnings of a spiritual soul can never be fully satisfied by anything material, such as money, fame, fleeting pleasurable feelings, etc.
St Augustine (d. 430) summed up this fundamental truth so tellingly in the following famous quote from his Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts will never find rest until they rest in you."
To deal with this situation, Pope John Paul II has repeatedly called for the need of a new evangelisation. This is a challenge to which all of us, without exception, must respond, if we are to turn things around.
Saint Paul tells us: "Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:28). Yet for the past 30 years there have been various attempts to make the liturgy of the Mass more "relevant" by introducing all kinds of extraneous measures, e.g., rock or folk music, novelties, or entertaining/semi-theatrical elements, beyond the creativity and variety already allowed by the liturgical norms.
These attempts have no doubt largely been made in good faith and with good intentions, but the results speak for themselves. They have obviously not resulted in an increase in Mass attendance, nor in a deeper appreciation of what the Mass really is. More of the same will not provide a solution. One must beware of preferring form over substance.
Urgently needed is a concerted effort to convey the Church's teachings on the Eucharist, the Mass and the priesthood via homilies, teachers' and catechists' inservices, religious education and adult education courses, liturgy committee meetings and the like, if things are to be turned around.
It is Catholic teaching, for example, that the Blessed Eucharist is not just a symbol, but that a real change takes place at the Consecration (see John Ch 6). The inner realities (substances) of the bread and wine are changed, only the appearances of bread and wine remaining.
Sense of the sacred
Pope John Paul II has called for a return to a "sense of the sacred" at Mass, since it is the "summit and source of the Christian life" (Vatican II). This means concentrating primarily on the "vertical" relationship to God, without losing sight of the "horizontal" relationship to the worshipping community.
A sense of the sacred should include an attitude of reverence, a prayerful sign of the cross with holy water on entering, an unhurried genuflection and the absence of unnecessary conversation and noise before and after Mass. Socialising should be done outside the church.
An appreciation of the Mass as a sacrifice also needs more emphasis. As Redemptionis Sacramentum reminds us, "The constant teaching of the church on the nature of the Eucharist is that it is not only a meal, but also and preeminently a sacrifice". The Pope underlines this in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia: "The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice ... the Mass makes present the sacrifice of the Cross".
In the same encyclical, the Holy Father refers to Mary as a "woman of the Eucharist", and in this she is our model.
Not only on Calvary, but throughout her life at Christ's side, Mary made the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist her own. As Mother of the Church she is present with the Church at each of our celebrations of the Eucharist.
While Vatican II called for "active" participation in the liturgy, the Latin word it used was not "activa" but "actuosa" - better translated as "actual". Redemptionis Sacramentum explains: "Active [actual] participation in the liturgy does not imply that everyone must necessarily have something to do beyond the actions and gestures."
Priests need to be encouraged - and required - to observe the norms of the recent Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum and to eliminate all abuses. No abuse is to be considered of little account - "all are to be carefully avoided and corrected" - while every Sacred Minister should "respect the rights of the faithful who rely on him to fill with fidelity the functions of the Sacred Liturgy".
In this regard, an individual bishop's legislative power over the liturgy is limited, since he is "bound to promote the discipline common to the entire Church and therefore to insist upon the observance of all ecclesiastical laws."
Finally, a campaign of prayer is essential, particularly extended Exposition and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, as recommended and encouraged by both Ecclesia de Eucharistia and Redemptionis Sacramentum.
Only through these strategies is there likely to be any chance of an upturn in Mass attendances.