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Why Does Anyone Go to Mass?

On the juju.


Cardinal Dolan is, to my mind, the American bishop par excellence, one of the few modern churchmen whose uncomplicated grandfatherly piety and Falstaffian joie de vivre can be effortlessly projected backward into any era of ecclesiastical history. One can imagine a Dolan standing shoulder to shoulder with the huddled Irish masses alongside “Dagger John,” a Timoteo de’ Sfidanti conspicuous for his chastity and simplicity among the more splendid ornaments of a worldly and venal Renaissance papal court, a Tadhg Ó Dubhláin who appears as a garrulous abbot in some forgotten early Irish chronicle. If I were among the cardinal-electors eligible to vote in the next papal conclave—or a billionaire inclined toward simony—I would do my level best to make him the first American to occupy the chair of Saint Peter.

Which is why it is in the becoming spirit of filial piety that I draw readers’ attention to a recent column from Another Publication in which His Eminence asks why it is that so many American Catholics no longer attend Mass, especially those who had previously done so (until 2020, for example). It is an important piece of writing—unusually candid for a document issuing forth from the pen of a bishop—and many of the issues Dolan raises (e.g., the length of the average Mass, the bishops’ attitude toward lockdowns) are of enormous interest in themselves, regardless of their immediate causal significance.

With all apologies to His Eminence, I believe that he is asking the wrong question. A better place to begin is to ask why anyone does attend Mass. The answer is not obvious. Pious cant about “the source and summit of the Christian life” has about as much bearing on the lives of the average man or woman in the pews as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s definition of the Force. Repeating these words, mantra-like, or plastering them on U.S.C.C.B. pamphlets will not alter this fact. While it is true that a small, more or less self-selecting group of Catholics—about whom I will say something below—accept the spiritual reality these and similar phrases are meant to convey, they are not by definition the ones whose absence is the object of speculation.

One reason that many people attend Mass is that their presence is made necessary by some para-liturgical function they perform on Sunday. The “Eucharistic ministers” (or “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion,” to use the politically correct term favored by conservatives during the last two pontificates) who handle what the schedule in the bulletin simply designates as “Cup,” the usher who helps adult men and women form lines (and who appear baffled by anyone who does not receive or chooses to receive only from the priest, which means switching lines), the woman whose job it is to interrupt Mass every two and a half minutes in order to inform us of things we already know or could discover by reading the posted sign (“Our gathering song is number two thirty-seven in the missalette”) and issue cooing, kindergarten teacher–style instructions (“Please stand and greet the person next to you”): when you have been engaged in these Rocky Horror–esque audience participation routines for half a century, they become synonymous with the Mass itself and, eventually, the whole reason it takes place.

If you don’t think I am right about the outsized importance of these things, try taking them away. Suggest that they are superfluous (anyone who has ever compared the speed with which Communion is distributed by a priest and server with a paten at an altar rail will know what I mean) or even sacrilegious (ditto), and watch people run away in a huff. I have seen elderly Catholics who have changed parishes following a change of address drift away from the faith because they were not immediately admitted into the inner circle responsible for their preferred area of volunteer activity (counting money, tending the grounds, etc.). To them the actual “source and summit of the Christian life” is having lunch after the parish council meeting or planning the next bake sale. The terrible sacrifice of Our Lord at Calvary, His glorious Resurrection, the sacraments, the Last Judgement, the reality of Heaven and Hell—these are not so much denied as occluded by the superstructure of endless busybodydom.

So much for Ed and Barb, who by definition only constitute a smallish if highly visible minority at any parish. For a second, closely related group, one that in terms of sheer volume probably constitutes a majority of Sunday Mass-goers in this country, the most common reason for attending is that it is simply what one does, like voting in presidential elections or serving turkey on Thanksgiving. (For white Anglophone Catholics, this is by now almost universally an outgrowth of their sense of being respectable and middle-class, an amusing reversal in light of not-so-distant American history.) We should not underestimate the role of these instincts; social pressure is of undeniable value in the forming of virtually all good habits. But it is important to emphasize here that it is Mass attendance, and, more to the point, reception of Holy Communion regardless of one’s interior disposition, to which one is directed here. Outside of Hispanic parishes (and churches in which the traditional Latin Mass is celebrated) reception of Communion has largely devolved into a kind of participation trophy ceremony—strolling up there to receive is one of the high points of Mass along with the topical jokes during the homily (not in themselves a bad thing), the announcements, holding hands during the Pater Noster, and the Sign of Peace. Think of the average suburban parish, where confession is offered for half an hour on Saturday afternoon. It is a sheer mathematical impossibility that all or even a majority of those who receive on Sundays are properly disposed to do so, which means that these parishes are (from one point of view) simply factories for the desecration of Our Lord’s Body and Blood. Confession, in other words, is not what one does, and even Mass itself is simply one social obligation among others, against which it will invariably find itself weighed. If it interferes with something else (a grandchild’s soccer game or an out-of-town bridal shower) it can be privately dispensed without discomfiture. This is true even of Mass on Christmas, especially if December 25 falls on a Monday, right after one has “already” attended Mass, and when it might conflict with secular observation of the holiday—opening presents with one’s unbaptized grandchildren, say. (Our Lord was never more right than when He predicted that what we might now call “family values” would be an obstacle to membership in His Kingdom.)

Phew. This brings us to the third reason one might attend Mass on Sunday (and on other days of precept), what one might call the “normative” reason, though I prefer to think of it as “the juju”: because the Church commands you to do so, and because you understand that the Mass is the one sacrifice of Calvary, offered unto the remission of sins. The juju is (in my experience anyway) overwhelmingly the reason why Catholics aged forty and under attend Mass. Ours is a generation for whom the faith has been more or less voluntary, subject to few if any meaningful social pressures after the onset of adulthood, often the result of something—an intellectual crisis, a countercultural sensibility, the spontaneous irruption of grace into individual human hearts—that is more or less beyond the bounds of what I have discussed above. Absent individual crises of faith—or episcopal interference with celebration of the old Rite—you are unlikely to lose this crowd. (Their children, who will have the interesting chance of experiencing the faith more or less the way some of their great-grandparents did, and bear the social costs of ersatz recusancy from mainstream American culture, are a different question entirely.)

What do these three answers or paradigms suggest collectively? Mainly, I think, that there is very little the Church can do to encourage attendance at Mass one way or the other; even the favored solutions of some conservative prelates—e.g., having pastors remind the faithful about their obligation to attend Mass under pain of mortal sin—are only applicable to those for whom “obligation” and “mortal sin” are meaningful categories of human experience. It is, literally, preaching to the choir (or in this case perhaps the schola).

More interesting than what this range of experiences tells us about the prospects for shoring up Sunday Mass attendance is what it reveals about other questions concerning the state of the Church. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it is in a sense the skeleton key to American Catholicism: For some older Catholics, going to Mass is simply a reflection of what I will call their “churchiness” or do-gooderism, a kind of personality trait that is not inherently part of religion but sometimes coincides with it. (If I for one did not accept the claims the Church makes for Herself, I would not miss waking up Sundays, unless there was a good piece of music I wanted to hear, in which case I would more likely be kicking myself for not schlepping it to Evensong.) For another group, it is comparable to watching Georgetown hoops or Notre Dame football; for another still, one with outsized visibility in proportion to their actual overall numbers, Mass is something you attend more or less in the spirit of a primitive tribesman in Frazer, because it is where the magic happens. The most significant division in the Church is between this last group and its two predecessors, between people who do not need to be told to attend Mass and people who only attend so that they can “do” the Epistle and catch up on gossip and coordinate uplifting volunteer work—and, of course, in order to avoid one’s absence being noticed.

So much for those of us still warming the pews. What about those who are gone, seemingly for good? Here I think it is important to begin not with those who have rather vocally—I almost said “noisily”—left the Church but with the enormous, indeed probably uncountable number of Americans who do not attend Mass but who are nevertheless “Catholics” in both a metaphysical sense—they have been baptized and in many cases confirmed—and in the humbler Pew Forum sense of identifying with the Catholic Church as opposed to some other “denomination.” (There is a reason no one has ever been identified as a “lapsed Baptist.”) Why did they stop going?

If you spend time talking to such people, as I have, you will likely hear one or more variations on the same story I have heard over and over again: that at some point in the late 1960s or early 1970s, something happened (or did not happen) that implicitly convinced them that the claims which the Church makes for Herself (infallibility, indefectibility, and so forth) are simply not true. For some people it was the introduction of the vernacular or other liturgical changes such as the introduction of Communion in the hand; for others it was the elimination of Friday abstinence from meat, which had been both a tangible marker of Catholic identity and a means of grounding supernatural truths in everyday life and, more to the point, of making the Church something other than that thing you do for an hour or so on Sunday. For others still it might have been the removal of the high altar or a statue from a beloved parish church or cathedral, or the sight of a religious sister sans habit, or the disappearance of a patronal feast; I know of one man for whom it was learning that something he had confessed was “no longer a sin.”

In each case the pattern is more or less the same. Various ill-considered changes gave an impression of total rupture that could not be counteracted by two generations of prelates banging on about the “hermeneutic of continuity” (or whatever it was called before 2006). For the sort of Catholic I have in mind here the insistence that nothing had really changed is an abstraction, at odds with the testimony of their senses, and one that has in any case arrived far too late, long after they were solemnly assured by their pastors that something had. And they were right, of course. Something had changed, whether one wants to pretend that it was significant or essential or what have you. And what that change suggested was that the rest of it was bunk. One might render it in the form of a syllogism:

1) If this can change, anything can change

2) If anything can change, the Church’s authority is arbitrary

This may not be a strictly logical argument—it does not, strictly speaking, follow from the fact that some things can change or perhaps simply appear to have changed that anything can—but most men and women are not logicians. Instead, faced with a conflict between something they could read in the “Credo of the People of God” or a book by Cardinal Ratzinger (assuming they were inclined to reading such things in the first place, as most of them emphatically were not) and what they themselves had seen and heard and felt, they quite reasonably followed the latter. For many this was not even the result of a long, agonizing process, but something visceral and in some cases perhaps even instantaneous, comparable to the experience described by Hugh Trevor-Roper in his Wartime Journals, where he tells us that one day, while strolling through the meadow at Christ Church, Oxford, “I saw the whole metaphysical world rise and vanish out of sight in the upper air, where it rightly belongs; I have neither seen it, nor felt its absence, since.”

Of course the break was not always quite so drastic. Many people who did not leave off attending Mass immediately found that their view of the Church was significantly altered by these experiences; it certainly affected the way they raised their children. A typical pattern goes something like this: Baby Boomers circa 1970 are shaken in their belief but, because their parents and indeed everyone else in their respectable social circles continue to attend Mass and the rest of it, they manage to keep up appearances; their own children are baptized, made to attend Mass, perhaps even to attend parochial school—but the grandchildren only receive the sacraments after a certain amount of browbeating, and not long after they have all been confirmed, the two younger generations are almost entirely lapsed. Then one day out of the blue the grandmother hears that her great-granddaughter has just been baptized “the old way,” and that the priest who did it wears one of those funny hats like they all used to back when they would have the parade for Saint Adalbert and. . . . All of this haunts her like the coming of spring. Upon hearing about these things, which she thought had vanished from the face of the earth, she does not (at least in most cases of which I am aware) ask to go and see these things for herself—no, that would be impossible somehow, absurd, perhaps painful—but there is something very moving about it nonetheless, and she makes a point of asking her granddaughter whether she would like to have all those old things of her own mother’s—the crucifixes and Sacred Heart pictures and holy water fonts sitting in a box in the basement.

Let me be clear (I use this phrase for emphasis, even at the risk of sounding like a politician): nothing I have written here should be taken to suggest that a return to pre-conciliar liturgical practices or disciplines will bring any of these people back to the faith, much less strengthen the resolve of the wayward or attract new converts (save perhaps a handful of well-heeled lawyers and intellectual types). Indeed, I think it is almost certainly the case that if every diocesan priest in the country began celebrating Mass ad orientem and prohibiting Communion in the hand, millions of Americans would leave their parishes and never return.

The point I would actually like to make is that these agonized discussions about declining Mass attendance (and, let’s be real, declining contributions to the annual bishop’s appeal), which have been taking place in every chancery in the United States for decades now, are largely pointless. There is no administrative solution to the crisis of faith. No undertaking by any bishop or pastor will restore what was built up over countless generations, or repair the social structures (whose disappearance is beyond the scope of this already unwieldy essay) upon which the faith once rested. Parishes will wither and die; their buildings will be sold, their funds exhausted by the costs of health care. There is no holding back the tide. No marketing campaign, no facile slogan, no nonsense about the “New Evangelization” can undo the consequences of mistakes made during the last century. We are headed inexorably toward the small Church that Pope Benedict predicted.

This, at any rate, is what I tell myself in my gloomier moments, which is to say, whenever I apply my mind to any of these questions. In recompense I have appended the following list of practical steps that I believe could be taken by the American episcopate if they are interested in making the best of a bad situation:

1. Weekly reception of Communion should no longer be held up as a norm in the American Church. The practice common in Latin America, in which individual presumption is in favor of not receiving unless one has recently been to confession, should be adopted.

2. The sacrament of confession—which ought to be referred to as such, and not by the cloying neologism “reconciliation”—should be emphasized, and any parish activity that interferes with a pastor’s ability to spend time in the box—half an hour a day at least—should be done away with.

3. Celebrations of Mass should be stripped of extraneous elements. At parishes with two or more Sunday Masses, at least one should be celebrated without music. Pointless lay involvement—especially of the kind that involves endless trips to and from the sanctuary, with or without the little neoconservative flourish of a “profound bow”—should be discouraged and, when necessary, proscribed; if possible, the readings should whenever possible be taken by a priest or deacon, or by an instituted lector who spends the rest of Mass assisting in choir rather than strolling back in front of the altar in order to return to his seat.

4. The so-called “Prayers of the Faithful” should be eliminated or else replaced with a brief recitation (preferably at the end of Mass, after the dismissal) of the Hail Mary and the Saint Michael Prayer, perhaps in the context of the old Leonine Prayers.

5. Distribution of Holy Communion under both species should be discontinued when it necessitates the presence of one or more “extraordinary” ministers.

6. Homilies should be brief in length and practical in content. No American Catholic should be subjected to a tedious précis of what his or her pastor half-remembers from his vanished days in seminary about how this or that Aramaic word illustrates the deeper meaning of the biblical text. Preaching should instead reinforce the basics: the importance of confession, how to make a good confession, how to resist the temptation to do x, the duties of parents to their children and vice versa.

7. The Sign of Peace should be excised. In practical terms, this means repeating the prescribed words without making time for banal gestures.

8. Announcements should not be made from the pulpit except for very grave reasons, and when they are they should follow the homily rather than the post-Communion prayers. Mass is (as Monsignor Ronald Knox says somewhere) for all practical purposes over after the priest’s Communion, a point that should be driven home in our churches. No hand-holding, no “testimony,” prayer intentions, congratulations. Sunday Mass is not a college freshman orientation. Save it for coffee hour.

9. Friday abstinence from meat should be revived, with dispensations granted liberally to those who for grave reasons find themselves unable to give it up, by which I mean anyone likely to complain. (The restored discipline should be introduced with quotations from Laudato si’ and its “ecological” significance emphasized, a neat double bind of sorts for two competing factions among the episcopate.)

10. The implementation of these rules should be delayed, perhaps even indefinitely, if the salvation of souls is threatened (e.g., if the guitar player threatens to take a header off the bridge or stop bringing his infant granddaughter to Mass if he is not permitted to strum along with the “Celtic Alleluia”)—save for the one about the bidding prayers (“these boring things,” as Cardinal Dolan once called them). Those, I am convinced, really do lead directly to Hell.

Unlike many would-be prescriptionists, I make no grand claims in favor of the rules proposed above. For every one of my readers (who no doubt incline toward the “juju” side) ready to dismiss them as pointless half-measures, there are probably a hundred American Catholics for whom the implementation of even one or two of them would be deeply shocking. One could implement all of them and still face empty pews, shuttered parishes, poor catechesis, lax and venal clergy. Why bother then? Mainly, I think, because unlike so many of the planning documents that issue forth from chanceries these days, these rules concern themselves with spiritual questions, ones that touch upon the actual care of souls. They presuppose an understanding of the Church as the people of God and the sacraments as the ordinary means of our salvation rather than as a mere human institution pressed by mounting budgetary and personnel-related crises. Bringing more people to confession means, or should mean, more people in Heaven, for instance. And that at any rate is better than the alternative.