It is customary at our Christmas Masses in my home parish that our pastor always makes a point to welcome those who do not regularly attend and to invite them into more regular participation. On Wednesday’s post, I observed that the 7 PM Christmas Mass was exceptionally full by the standards of my memory, shaky as that may be, and that thought had been running through my mind throughout the evening. My pastor could not have missed that, either, and I think that this year the very large number of marginal members in the house had a stronger impact upon him than in the past. For in his standard message I detected a spontaneous detour of emotion. He said with some feeling that he could not imagine how one could live without the sustaining power of the weekly Eucharist. Always the gentleman, this was a strong demonstration of feelings—probably mixed, I am sure.
As a spiritual leader, it is always painful to see so vividly in the flesh that large numbers on the rolls—and probably as many off the rolls—are essentially “cultural Catholics.” Attendance at Christmas Mass is part of the family tradition of the holidays along with Christmas Dinner at grandma’s and Ralphie’s “Christmas Story” on the TNT marathon. Whatever else the Christmas liturgies symbolize, they are stark evidence that over the past generations large numbers of infants and adults were baptized and modestly catechized to the point that they may identify with the Church but do not embrace it as a personal “game changer.” As such, they are more easily susceptible to the inconsistencies of Church life. At the very least, one can be consoled that part of this population has become more honest with pollsters, as former and/or inactive Catholics are reporting their status to investigators to the point that social scientists can identity “former Catholics” as this nation’s number two religious cohort.
In the case of my own pastor, it must be particularly difficult to see this disparity because I cannot think of another pastor who works harder to engender a parish curriculum of spirituality and basic catechetics. One hardly knows where to start: from the booklets on Lection Divina--mailed to each home for the New Year, days of Eucharistic Adoration, on-line access to FORMED for every parishioner (at considerable parish expense), promotion of devotions, the recruitment of a community of young sisters who live on-site and have their thumbs in every worthwhile pie in the parish, the continuing excellence of a Blue Ribbon Catholic school—no one can ever say that my parish does not exert high volumes of energy and backing in its attempt to provide opportunities of faith enrichment. And yet, for all that work, the parish has maintained an equilibrium—albeit an enviable one--while the community around it continues to grow. We are in that politically famous “I-4 Corridor” of voter rich Florida which seems to be the hinge of this true swing state.
Equally true of my pastor and parish has been the avoidance of the deep divisions between red state and blue state, or liberal versus conservative, in our public parish life. I know that there is a substratum of fringe elements in religion and politics among some members—I get emails and solicitations from individuals and causes clearly out of step with the “parish theology.” This is a national problem as much as a local one, particularly on the internet. I feel that my pastor has handled the USCCB political agenda package about as impartially as is possible, to the good of the parish in my view, while the American bishops overall seemed more than slightly tilted toward Republican candidates (giving more weight to John Kennedy’s famous dictum in 1960 that all bishops are Republicans and all nuns are Democrats.).
I think I can safely say that the pastor is working to replicate the model of his own parish of origin. I think this is the first instinct of all professionals, sometimes to our peril. He is a generation younger than I am but from a part of the Northeast where Vatican II made a gentle landing into an entrenched Catholic stronghold. He cherishes that youthful memory and seems determined to restore it. He may or may not be aware of what historians and sociologists today are coming to understand about “the good old days” of post-World War II American Catholicism, that in terms of numbers of members and clergy the Church in the United States experienced an extraordinary blip in vocations, as did religious sisters, and the declining numbers across the board are partly a return to the median of American Catholic experience.
Between the demographics of American Catholicism in general and a continuing decline in the numbers of ordained priests (the United States, interestingly, was clerically self-sufficient only between 1940 and 1960), my pastor has made recruitment of seminarians and the growth of vocations his number one personal priority. That is a refreshing change from parishes where all the pastor ever talks about is money (a major complaint across the country, per pollsters.) My parish has “vocation cups” circulating through the parish homes where we are encouraged to pray and “whisper the names of worthy candidates” into the cup. We have hosted the cup here in our home on several occasions but I did draw the line on “priest whispering.” We have three seminarians, I believe, possibly more, and I genuinely like the ones I know and wish them well, of course. I would like to know them better, their thoughts on priesthood, ministry, and the culture they will soon serve.
At the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass I attended, after his invitation to fallen away Catholics, the pastor then turned to the coterie of black-cassocked seminarians seated in the sanctuary (white albs for the seminarians on the Christmas feast would have been much more appropriate on many levels) and he expressed his happiness with their success in the seminary. Then, noting the large number of young men in the congregation, he appealed to them to consider the priesthood.
Call it une event psychologique as the French would say, but I felt a dissonance here about this particular pulpit reference before this congregation on this occasion of Christmas Eve. Later in the evening I worked to put my finger on my problem. It may have something to do with the ongoing research of dissociated Catholics by CARA, PEW, or independent studies such as Father William J. Byron’s (former president of Catholic University) for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey in 2012. I have linked a summary of Father Byron’s research here, but a major factor in departures from the church is detachment from the “clerical world” of Catholic existence. Byron makes the point that nearly 50% of marginal Catholics do (or did) like their pastors personally; it is the optics (how I love that word) of clericalism that puzzles or alienates so many Catholics, and how subtle a virus it is—there was no recruiting on Christmas Eve for the sisters who serve our parish. I thought of my own failings as a minister when I read one man’s observation that “when you ask a priest a question, you get a rule.”
The low rate of participation at weekly Eucharist nationwide—about 22% seems about the mean of most present-day research—worries me. Thus, when we have that rare occasion like Christmas Eve when some of the alienated 78% are likely to be at hand due to tradition or family pressure, do we want to advertise a reality that may be part of the problem? I agree that the Church needs more healthy priests. But I also agree with CEO’s in other industries who, observing the exodus from Catholic Churches, are perplexed that no one in Church leadership takes the time to examine loss of the market, so to speak. (Give the bishop of Trenton credit for that.) I will keep praying when the Vocation Cup comes around again, but I will pray that God blesses us all—priest and lay--with the vocation of listening.
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