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Empty Pews: A Sign Of The Times

One of my old college professors told me years ago that people do things that they see value in.  The only conclusion that I can draw from the empty churches is that people today apparently do not see value in going to church.  National polls and surveys confirm the evidence.  Since the 1950’s, attendance has plummeted from 70% of baptized Catholics to about 35%.

Today there are fewer parishes and fewer priests and of the nation’s 65 million Catholics fewer attend church on a regular basis.  “The most damaging change in Catholic life is the precipitous decline in Mass attendance.  It’s the sign of a church collapsing,” said Catholic University sociologist William D’Antonio.  Sunday has become another day in the life of Americans.  People’s lives are busy and some work on weekends.  Many Catholics, especially the younger ones, have simply dropped out of the Church.  Others are turned off by the boring homilies or insipid music.  Some feel alienated or marginalized: women, homosexuals, those divorced and remarried.  In our fast-paced, postmodern world, Sunday has become just another day, indistinguishable from the rest of the week.  It is a day to catch up on tasks left undone during the week, or to cram in some leisure activity.  Less and less is Sunday a special day, a day set aside to honor God.

We are obliged to grow in holiness and in the likeness of Christ.  Vatican II made it clear that this is the primary vocation of every baptized person.  We are obliged to avoid sin and whatever leads to it, to practice the works of mercy and care for our neighbors in need, to work for social justice and equality for all persons, to exercise good stewardship of our own and the earth’s resources.  But why do we resist the obligation that comes to us from the covenant love of our God?

The Catholic world was once marked by stability; now all it is marked by is change.  Whatever the causes, it is clear that U.S. Catholics’ once nearly uniform obedience to their church’s requirement of weekly Mass attendance has faded, and Catholics are now no different from Protestants in their likelihood to attend church.  This has occurred among Catholics of all age categories, but is most pronounced among those under 60.  In a report published in 2005, “Baby Boomers entered adulthood during a time of great questioning of civic and cultural institutions.  Declining Mass attendance is due more to death of the older Catholics than to a new disaffection among younger Catholic members.”  In Europe it is an established trend where parishes are often viewed as “sacramental filling stations – people come for the Eucharist, baptisms, marriages and funerals, but little else.”

Each generation starts with a lower attendance rating so the problem keeps compounding itself.  I did a lot of research regarding every possible aspect of the decline in Mass attendance from the sexual revolution to secularism but there was one reason and one reason only that stood out:  there is a lack of belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.  If Catholics believed in the Real Presence of Jesus, nothing would or could keep them away.

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