Empty Pews

I hope I am not the only one concerned about the paucity of pews that are are occupied during Saturday and Sunday Masses of obligation. I keep wondering where have all the faithful Catholics gone. At one time I thought after a Saturday Vigil Mass that they were probably at the 11:00 a.m. on Sunday…that is until I had cause to attend that Mass one Sunday morning.

The pews were as bare as they were on Saturdays. Perhaps this decline was just representative of nothing more than my parish whose demographics trend toward the elderly and those with infirmities. There were not enough young people moving into our parish to replace them when they went to meet their Maker. On occasions I have attended the five at a neighboring parish and to my disappointment the same was true and this parish was much larger than my own.

Could it be the paucity of priests that was at work here, or was that infrequency of vocations? Or was it more reflective of the loss of Catholic belief in this country? Was Western Europe with all of its virtually empty churches a nightmare of our church to come?

Father Bill Peckman tried to explain the Hard Truth about this decline in a short essay I read on-line. He believes that the influx of immigrants from Latin America hides the true magnitude of this decline. Even with this influx, every measurable indicator is down: baptisms, confirmations, marriages, priestly ordinations, numbers of men’s and women’s religious, children in parochial schools and religion programs.

The major error was ignoring or the complete disavowing of the transcendent. Church leaders have domesticated God. And Catholics have become functional Arians, in that many of us have lost our true sense of Christ’s Divinity. Too many of us act as if Jesus were merely human. He is not Divine but more like our holy guru, a self-help teacher, social worker extraordinaire. As a Church in this country, we have taken our eyes off the ball.

Father Peckman was disturbed that Mass started looking less like the worship of God and more like a pep rally. Our churches stopped looking Catholic and were overrun by iconoclasts. We went from churches that visually exuded Catholic belief to ubiquitous ‘sacred spaces’ that looked more like theaters. Worship had become just another of our many amusements.

By ripping out the transcendent heart out of worship, we reduced Mass. It is no wonder that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist plummeted. It is little wonder that priestly vocations plummeted. While the generation that ushered these things love them, the subsequent generations fled in droves.

With worship emptied of the transcendent, Catholic life soon followed. Devotional life in parishes dried up. Parish churches became Mass stations. One bright spot has been the rise in Eucharistic Adoration. With the focus off the transcendent, awareness also plummeted. Confession lines disappeared. Families shrunk as we started contracepting ourselves out of existence. The loud din of children gave way to seas of gray. Accommodation of the secular culture went largely unchallenged. Causes replaced action. The works of mercy declined as a false idea of social justice rose in its place.

In this milieu, it was easy for people to leave. Without the transcendent, we offer nothing more than a social group or club. Without the transcendent, objective morality fades away. With our eyes off the ball, 78% of Catholics simply quit coming to Mass. Without belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the Catholic life starves to death.

But those who leave, even if they go nowhere else, still have that longing, that inner need for Jesus. Many say they are spiritual but not religious. There is still an unrequited longing for the transcendent. If they cannot find it with us, they will look elsewhere, even if that means cobbling something together themselves. We can sneer and belittle them at our own peril. The fact they aren’t drawn to a pep rally isn’t on them – it is on us. How many priests even are aware of this decline and how come those who have noticed have not been more vocal in their displeasure?

How do we turn this around? Father Peckman says we should start with focusing back on the transcendent again. We must highlight it in our structures, our worship, our music, our preaching, and our teaching. This doesn’t mean we ignore the immanent or the material. Not at all! The transcendent must find a home in our lives. If God has placed a longing for Him, then that must be the focus at Mass. If we don’t focus on God there, we will leave people no choice but to look elsewhere.

If we look and act the same as the secular culture around us, then we can hardly be a witness to the throngs of people who are searching for something to fill that God sized hole in their souls. Catholicism is much more than a cultural distinction. It is a way of life. And unless we walk hand in hand with Jesus in His sacraments, we will not see Him in Paradise. After all, St. Augustine reminds us that our hearts are restless until they rest in Christ. We have to pray as if our spiritual lives depended on it. And they do! I hope the hierarchy is listening.

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Written by
William Borst
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