According to the “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” published in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Catholic Church is bleeding membership like no other religious group in the country:
“Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes… These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration… Approximately one-third of the survey respondents who say they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. This means that roughly 10% of all Americans are former Catholics” (pgs. 6-7).
The value of such data and its underlying dynamics are always open to debate (as I did in an article here in 2009), especially when it comes to a secular organization attempting to expound upon matters religious, but let’s not dismiss these findings too quickly.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA) largely confirmed Pew’s findings stating in a follow-up report of its own, “In many regards, most of Pew’s Catholic results are consistent with recent findings of CARA’s national random-sample telephone polls.”
The CARA article went on to say that its own polling data suggests that 2 percent of the U.S. adult population consists of Catholic converts, while more than double that number (4.2 percent) who were raised Catholic had since converted to some other religious group.
A further look at the demographics shows that the number American Catholics as a percentage of the nation’s total population has dropped a staggering 18.5 percent since 1965, and this in spite of what Pew correctly identified as an offsetting factor in the “disproportionately high number of Catholics among immigrants to the U.S.”
So, how did we get here? The answer, in my estimation, is actually rather simple - as Cool Hand Luke would say, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
Make no mistake about it – the problem at hand is first and foremost a liturgical problem, and it is best understood as being twofold in nature as it relates to communication.
Number one, the outward signs that have been most typically used in the celebration of Holy Mass over the last four decades (i.e., those things that are perceptible to the senses like the words, music, gestures, vestments, vessels, etc.) have largely failed to communicate to the assembled faithful what the liturgy truly is in its very essence.
Secondly, the faith formation initiatives most commonly undertaken in our parishes throughout this time period have been very long on discussions about what the faith “means to me” and woefully short on what the faith actually teaches in its substance. In fact, we must admit that liturgical catechesis in particular has been practically nonexistent over the last four decades.
The former situation is currently being addressed slowly yet deliberately as the Holy See guides the much needed “reform of the reform;” e.g. via the forthcoming new English translation of the Roman Missal and the Holy Father’s efforts to make Holy Mass according to the ancient use more readily available.
As for the matter of catechesis, the Council Fathers said that “pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve fully conscious and active participation by all the people by means of the necessary liturgical instruction” of the faithful (cf SC 14).
I would suggest, however, that much has changed since these words of wisdom were written. For one, there are roughly 20,000 less priests serving the Church in the United States today than there were back in 1960, and as a result the ones that we do have are stretched incredibly thin in their duties.
Furthermore, Catholics today enjoy unprecedented access to a wealth of dependable catechetical aids via the internet and other forms of media.
This being the case, it’s high time for each and every one of us to take responsibility for our own formation in the faith; to engage in the kinds of liturgical instruction that is necessary to correct the regrettable trends discussed herein.
An excellent place to begin is the Catechism of the Catholic Church where we find the following:
The word "liturgy" originally meant a "public work" or a "service in the name of/on behalf of the people." In Christian tradition it means the participation of the People of God in "the work of God." Through the liturgy Christ, our redeemer and high priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church (CCC 1069).
This solitary article, if duly considered, is enough to inspire a lifetime of contemplation! It tells us that “liturgy” before Christ and before He founded His Church was nothing more than a work of the people. Indeed, that’s all it could be. We, however, must understand that the liturgy of the Catholic Church is nothing less than the work of Almighty God Himself!
So, who is “working” in the liturgy? It is Christ our Redeemer. And what is He doing? He is continuing the work of our redemption. This, my friends, is something that no community of the faithful, no matter how creative, devout, welcoming or sincere can possibly do for itself.
Unless and until we comprehend the truth that Jesus Christ accomplishes the work of our redemption, in the present tense, in the sacred liturgy of the Holy Roman Catholic Church (to the extent that comprehension is possible for us mere mortals this side of Heaven) we run the risk of looking at Holy Mass as something akin to the “Catholic version” of any number of other Christian praise and worship services. Our failure in this regard is exactly what has paved the road upon which the Catholic exodus of the last 40 years has occurred.
Forget all of the reasons people may give for leaving the only Church founded by Christ in favor of a Protestant community worship service, the bottom line is that they did so largely because they didn’t possess a basic understanding and appreciation for how Christ is uniquely present and operative in the sacred liturgy of the Catholic Church alone.
Much is at stake here, both for ourselves and for those to whom we are called to witness, and so we need to get this right!
Well, the first thing we need to realize, in humility, is that the way in which Christ accomplishes the work of redemption in the liturgy is a great mystery of our faith. This is why we can call Holy Mass sacred mystery.
“Mystery” in the theological sense doesn’t mean unknowable; rather, it refers to a truth that is so profound that we can only really speak of it by way of analogy and through signs and symbols. In other words, human language will always fall short of explaining how Christ continues the work of our Redemption in the Mass, but even so, St. Leonard of Port Maurice – Patron Saint of Parish Missions - gives us as good and concise a description as any I’ve seen:
“The bloody sacrifice of the Cross was the instrument of redemption. The unbloody sacrifice of the Mass is that which put us in possession of this work, affording the practical use of that treasury through the Lord’s mystical return.”
St. Leornard went on to say that in the Mass, Christ mystically returns to die for us, without really dying again; He is present in the Mass both as One who is slain, yet also as One who is Risen in Glory.
He then asks a wonderful rhetorical question, “How is it possible that any one should remain before the altar with a mind distracted and a heart dissipated at a time when the holy angels stand there trembling and astonished at the contemplation of a work so stupendous?”
If even the angels tremble in astonishment at Holy Mass, shouldn’t we as well? Shouldn’t we be filled with a sense of tremendous awe?
Yes, of course we should, and more than that – we must grow in our understanding of this tremendous gift of God’s love for us such that we are able to “offer a defense for the hope that is within us” (1 Peter 3:15) to others, especially to those who are either outside the Catholic Church or tempted to leave Her.
Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio has been a columnist for Catholic News Agency since April 2009. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com