Often, parishioners will ask my opinion regarding empty pews. My first response is that there shouldn’t be. But then, I point to the variety of options available to Catholics these days. Sunday morning golf. Sunday morning Starbucks. Sunday morning strolls. Sunday morning kids soccer games. Of course, the list of Sunday morning options goes on and on. Across the Catholic landscape, it is clear that among a growing contingent, religiosity has stalled and less salt is being spread upon a culture badly in need of it.
Years ago, while a seminary student, I mentioned an experience in class that I had while attending a packed Easter Sunday Mass. While seated next to a young couple, it was time for reception of Holy Communion. But as ushers approached our pew to guide us toward the communion line, I could not help but overhear the communication between the two of them, especially his pointed question of her: “What should I do?” And her response: “Follow behind me, hold out your hand, and say ‘Amen‘ when the priest gives you a cookie.”
I kid you not. In telling that story to my fellow students, however, I was surprised when one student vented in my direction. “You just don’t get it. Can’t you see that Jesus had drawn them into that church on Easter Sunday in order to touch their hearts?”
In pondering empty pews and stories like this, a priest I know has led me toward a reality known as “remnant ministry.” Such ministry rests on the idea that God will not judge our stewardship based upon the quantity or even the quality of our converts and parishioners. Rather, our Lord will judge us based upon our fidelity as parish ministers. Have we been true servants of Christ? Have we proclaimed God’s word with courage and administered His sacraments with joy? In his Letter to the Romans (11:5), St. Paul reminds us:
“So also at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.”
In reflecting upon such remnants, Mother Teresa provides us with an excellent example. In stepping away from a comfortable order of teaching nuns, her decision to serve the “poorest of the poor” provided for a new beginning. Over the years, that tiny remnant has grown into a worldwide mission that today serves the Body of Christ—one poor soul at a time.
As Lent continues, maybe this is the message each of us should carry. Whether we minister to a small or large number of parishioners or within our own families, may our remnant ministries be like yeast causing the one bread to be brought about.
And with regard to the numbers, let’s leave them in God’s hands.