Sunday, August 13, 2017

Let's Stop Making Mass Attendance an Add-on to Catechesis!

More than once in my work as a diocesan administrator, I have encountered parish staffs who attempt to force families of children and youth in catechetical programs to go to Mass. Their methods range from a requirement to pick up a bulletin or sign in with the ushers to punch-cards to prove Mass attendance, sometimes accompanied by threats of withholding the sacrament the child is preparing for if attendance at Mass is not at a certain threshold.

Some parishes ask parents (and older students) to sign an agreement about Mass attendance. I was even told recently that at one parish a child with near-perfect class attendance was not advanced to the next grade level because her parents almost never took her to Mass (!)

I have to come right out and say it: all of this is shameful and manipulative - and ultimately ineffective - as shown by the continuing decline in the numbers of our Catholic people attending Mass regularly. We can see it by the number of families who simply disappear from the parish after their children have received the Sacraments of Initiation. They have been initiated, in their minds, into nothing in particular. Like secular life-events that are commemorated, their sacramental initiation is safely tucked away in the scrapbook of life instead of being a living reality that continues to enrich them and invite them to lives of holiness.

While a few families may intuitively benefit from the experience of being forced to go to Mass, most resent it (and I get the phone calls that tell me so!) Many will only comply until they get what they came for - that sacrament certificate- and some will even tell their children outright that after Confirmation they don't have to go to Mass.

There IS a better way.

While parish catechetical leaders and clergy should certainly encourage Mass attendance, why aren't they encouraging and forming people for Mass participation?  Mass is about much more than just showing up!

People will receive the full benefit of the power of the Mass only if they understand why they are invited to the table of the Word and table of the Sacrament. Mass is more than just something Catholics do.  It is the heart of Catholic faith and practice for a reason.

What is that reason?  Well, not because God needs our praise - he certainly has enough glory without anything we do. Jesus had something else in mind when he said "Do this in memory of me" and instituted the Mass.  He was inviting us to become a changed people and he continues to do that today. When asked where he lived, he said "Come and see."  Where does he live today? At Mass. (See Sacrosanctum Consilium 7 for the four ways Christ is present in the Mass.)

Basically, God wants us to offer ourselves at Mass to be changed by the Word and by the Eucharist. He wants us to grow in holiness, to become more like Jesus Christ - people of self-giving love. (For more on that, see Tim O'Malley's excellent book: Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love )  We do that by listening actively and openly to the Word and by offering ourselves along with the bread and wine to be changed. This is the heart of the sacramental encounter.

What the Mass does is change who we are. It is NOT something we merely attend. It is also a "rehearsal" for the heavenly banquet.  So, why do we continue to "take attendance" as if it is a required class?

James Pauley, in Liturgical Catechesis in the 21st Century: A School of Discipleship,  argues that the transforming grace of God, enacted through the liturgy, is central to how people become disciples. He also points out that catechesis, unconnected to the liturgy, fails to connect people to this important wellspring of evangelization. He proposes an apprenticeship model, individualized and powered by mentoring, rooted in the liturgy. In short, he proposes a revolution in how we think about the relationship between parish religious education and the liturgy.

What do we need to get there?  It begins with parish leadership and clergy realizing that catechesis is more than just forming people in doctrine and practice, but should be about forming disciples - people who are willing to re-form the agenda of their lives around the self-giving model of Jesus Christ rather than the agendas of self and world. It begins with realizing that the true engine that powers the formation of disciples is not dispensing knowledge about the faith, but the Mass itself, which is the setting for personal transformation.

Parish catechesis will continue to falter and be marginally effective in making the next generation of Catholics until we learn that faithful, full and active participation in the liturgy is the primary power that will make our teaching about Catholic faith effective. Going to Mass not a mere add-on practice. It is not a hoop we ask people to jump through to get something else they want. It is the heart of who we are and can become.