Last week I had the privilege of spending two days conducting catechist formation for the 42 new Catholic school teachers of our diocese Probably about 2/3 of them will be teaching Religion, but all of them are catechists - because they will be sharing faith with children and their families. The entire experience was enfolded in prayer, ritual and liturgical catechesis and sprinkled with practical examples and discussion, tips for methodology, curriculum issues and more. Naturally, during all of this, we talked about the importance of Mass - and of course, we discussed the problem that so few families attend Mass with their children. There was great concern, and rightly so.
One teacher shared that her parish school "makes" parents sign a contract about Mass attendance and that there is an assignment on Monday mornings where students are asked to write about the weekend homily and the experience of Mass. Mass as "homework" - oh my! What a sad commentary on the state of the Church! While I have to grant that it may get families there, I am a bigger fan of strategies for attraction and invitation over coercion.
What has happened to faith formation in America that it has been more or less downgraded to a consumer commodity? Both in religious education programs and Catholic schools, we see a continuing increase in the "drop-off" mentality - parents seem to feel they are purchasing a service - the parish or school is being paid to make their kids Catholic, so the parents can feel they gave their children "a foundation in religion" - and can check that off the "good parent to-do list".
When children go home to families where faith is not practiced, where there is no family prayer or Mass attendance, there is no guarantee that anything the child experiences or learns will be effective in giving them a lifelong foundation for Catholic faith. In fact, in April of last year, the Pew Forum "Leaving Catholicism" report showed that the single most important factor in whether or not a person stayed in or left the Catholic Church in young adulthood was whether or not they attended Mass regularly as a teen. Obviously, the foundation for that begins in early childnood.
Complaints we typically hear are that kids are "bored" at Mass, or that Mass is not "family friendly." This, of course is the consumer mentality speaking. Mass, or course, is not something we should go to expecting to be entertained or where the poor behavior of children's who are no longer infants should be accepted just because they are there. It is public ritual worship, where all have the right and duty to participate, even the children.
It is clear to me that among the families who actually do attend Mass regularly, there are best-practices and not-so-good practices. Families who set an expectation of the children that they, too, will participate make a conscious effort to help their children learn how to pray the Mass - they open the missal and follow the prayers and responses with their finger. They open the hymnal and help their children to learn to sing at very early age with joy and enthusiasm.
These, however, are the ones who are actually present at Mass as families with young children. If the young adult parents are not attending Mass themselves because they were disengaged as teens, the scenario simply perpetrates itself in the next generation.
What to do? I think we need to get to the new parents.... right at and immediately after baptism of their children. If we ignore them and trust them to show up when they wish their children to "get their sacraments" we enable them to have a consumer attitude - to come in to find out how much money and time it will cost to get the certificates. Our entire model - the predominance of private baptisms separated from Mass, handing the parents a certificate and waiting for them to come back - is disengaged from the intention of Baptism as the gateway sacrament into the community of faith's Eucharistic practice.
Yes, there are strategies out there where the parish sends out occasional letters to the families on the anniversary of baptism, etc. but this is not enough. We need to reach out, invite, and mentor young families to keep them connected. If every child were baptized at Mass, held up in front of the community of faith and embraced and welcomed every week, if young famlies were encouraged to connect with other young families, they would be less likely to disappear. If parishes had early-childhood Mass-participation coaching - mentor families showing parents how to help their children become a part of the community's worship.... well, you can see there are many possibilities. This might actually be a call for Family Ministry people to come out of their silos to work with religious educators, Catholic school principals and liturgy committees. That would be revolutionary!