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Liturgy and Evangelization: The Data and the Task

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At a recent event sponsored by the Evangelical Catholic, Rev. Thomas Wray of the Office of Evangelization of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati began his homily at Mass with sobering statistics about those who are baptized as infants in Catholic churches:

  • 15% do not make their First Communion.
  • Of the 85% that are left, 42% do not receive the sacrament of Confirmation.
  • We lose 80% of confirmandi after high school.

Statistics presented by Sherry Weddell in her book Forming Intentional Disciples show that “Nones”—as in “I have no religion”—is the fastest growing “church” in the United States:

  • 17% of the population is a None; 24% of 18- to 29-year-olds are Nones.
  • Four times as many people leave the Catholic Church as join it as adults.

Of those who leave the Catholic Church:

  • 15% joined a Protestant church. Two-thirds of them say that their spiritual needs were not being met in the Catholic Church and they found a church they liked better. About one quarter cite the clergy sexual abuse scandal as the reason they left.
  • The rest consider themselves “Nones.” More than two-thirds say they just drifted away, like the song goes—“losing my religion.” As with those becoming Protestants, about 25% cite the clergy sexual abuse scandal as their primary reason for leaving.

We see this falling away in our Mass attendance statistics:

  • In the 18–46 age group, Mass attendance averages about 12%
  • Ages 47–64 are marginally better: 20%
  • Age 65 and up: 45%

Our assumption has always been that we bequeath religious faith to our children via our culture and they hang onto it through life. We expect our kids to drop out as young adults while they go off to sow their “wild oats”—a Catholic version of the Amish rumspringa—but when they get married and start having kids, they will come back to the Church. Maybe this was true in previous generations, but the statistics show that that assumption is as dead as the nickel candy bar.

In the beginning, at our Baptism, we are gifted by the grace of God with Virtus Fidei—the gift of faith. This is the power, the ability, the capacity to believe. But it is not magic. It must be followed by the Actus Fidei—the active faith, the assent of the will, the life lived according to faith and the teachings of Christ. In between the original gift of the Virtus Fidei and the Actus Fidei, the life of faith, must come the encounter with the kerygma, the Good News of Christ, followed by an effective initiatory catechesis. Sherry Weddell shows us the stark realities of the spiritual lives of Catholics these days:

  • 52% of Catholics either don’t think a personal relationship with Christ is possible or they aren’t sure one way or another.
  • Of those 18 to 29 years old, 60% don’t believe a personal relationship with Christ is possible.
  • Ages 30–49: 54% don’t believe in a personal relationship with Christ.
  • Ages 50–64: 46% don’t believe in a personal relationship with Christ.

These statistics reflect the overwhelming secular influence of this age. As Dr. Timothy O’Malley suggests in his book Liturgy and the New Evangelization, referencing the work of the sociologist Christian Smith, the true religion of this age is a “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which manifests as

[the] thinning of the Christian’s imagination, a decreased desire toward a deeper understanding of the rites, and an exclusive focus upon individual flourishing.

It is less about denying God qua God and more about the primacy of individualism and consumerism. Modernity leaves room for a vague spirituality that makes few demands and primarily desires that everyone be nice to everyone else, but not much more.

When it comes to liturgy, this modern religion throws up serious barriers to our praxis. There is an ongoing attenuation of our liturgical knowledge that circumscribes our imaginations and prevents us from understanding what is happening with our liturgy. Because our imaginations are so impoverished, the idea that there are deeper meanings present in practically every sentence of the texts recited or sung at our Masses is simply not understood by too many people.

The modern era encourages a certain carelessness in our theological understanding of the signs and symbols of our liturgy. We typically look for the minimum amount of time, effort, and understanding that we must invest in order to get what we want out of an experience. The ultimate meaning of “life, the universe, and everything” isn’t relevant. This is not only an issue for the laity, as the clergy (including the bishops) have been essential participants in the processes that are dumbing down our liturgy.

The modern goal is to focus on individual flourishing. We go to church, not because there are transcendent truths giving illumination to our lives and salvation to our souls, but because going to a church, as church, is good for us. There are lots of social, psychological, emotional, and mental benefits from religious involvement. For many, that’s as far as their understanding goes. They don’t have the experience of the Risen Christ in their hearts, the kerygma hasn’t been encountered; they remain in need of evangelization. Their imaginations are not formed by the eternal Beauty and they are often “clueless” about what is happening around them at our liturgies. The holy sacrifice of the Mass becomes an elaborate Catholic version of the Pledge of Allegiance which we do because, you know, we are Catholics, and this is what Catholics do.

If we were discussing a temporal institution, the outlook would be dismal. Indeed, we do not lack for oracles predicting the imminent demise of Roman Catholicism. But we are the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. This isn’t our first bout with the lures of secularity and it will not be the last. As has happened before, often when it seemed as though the darkness was overwhelming, movements of renewal are rising in the twenty-first century Church. Many of our religious orders and most beloved saints were part of this process in earlier generations. They handed on to us the missionary proclamation. We take it up with humility, hope, and joy for our own time and place, as we obey the Savior’s call to go “into all the nations” with the Gospel we have received.

Featured Photo: Indigo Skies Photography; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Bob Waldrop

Bob Waldrop is the Director of Music and Liturgy, and is on the leadership team for the evangelization ministry, at Epiphany of the Lord parish in Oklahoma City. He is the founder of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House. He previously served on the Migrants and Refugees Advisory Committee of Catholic Charities Oklahoma City, and has received awards from the Sierra Club and the Oklahoma Sustainability Network for his work to care for Creation.