A friend of mine showed me a message his pastor had recently written to their congregation about Mass attendance — or, more accurately, lack thereof.
The note included a careful analysis of parish registration versus actual people in the pews on any given Sunday. The pastor had even factored in a few deterrents to Sabbath observance, such as bad weather and Eagles games. The diligent calculations and projections added up to what has become a tiring total: in far too many U.S. parishes, only a handful of professed Catholics actually make the effort to celebrate the Eucharist on a weekly basis, if at all.
The pastor concluded his message by urging his readers to do their best to bring more people to Mass — certainly a fitting exhortation, but one that fell strangely flat.
Maybe it’s because that sort of call to action sounds like something you’d hear in a sales meeting, where the district manager starts hounding his staff to get their quarterly numbers up before corporate closes the division.
Among the many excruciating lessons we are learning from the ongoing clerical sexual abuse crisis is that we’ve long taken for granted — or outright forgotten — what it means to be the church. Are we interested simply in having more bodies in the pews, or in building a true body of Christ?
Do we want a larger market share — more people, more property, more political and cultural power — or do we want to bring about the kingdom of God on earth?
Are we running the numbers, or are we running to Jesus?
How many of the saints we honor endured horrific suffering, torture and death: scourged, starved, imprisoned, burned, beheaded, crucified, flayed, hanged, shot. Those who were spared such fates usually suffered misunderstanding, ridicule, loneliness, exhaustion and illness throughout their lives.
And not only that, they did so with joy — which makes no sense whatsoever.
Unless you’re in love with Someone.
We’ve often heard our evangelical brothers and sisters speak of having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” and while the expression can seem rather glib, it captures the essence of why we live as Christians. Each one of us must deeply and continuously encounter Christ, so that like St. Paul we can individually know him as the “Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20; emphasis mine).
If we authentically embrace that truth, we won’t need to hound our family and friends to help fill the gaps at Mass. We will overflow with the love, hope and excitement that filled the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel (John 4:4-42). Her exchange with Jesus — who defied convention to converse with her, and who revealed her multiple marriages and current adulterous relationship — sent her back to her village with an announcement: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?” (John 4:29).
So eager was the Samaritan woman to share her news that she left behind her water jar (John 4:28) and ignored fears of being mocked by the very villagers she’d likely sought to avoid in the first place by visiting the well alone at noon (John 4:6-7).
And once those villagers spent time with the Lord, they too were transformed. Jesus stayed with them two days, after which they said to the Samaritan woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world” (John 4:42).
A wounded and weakened church will not be renewed by trying to stuff the sanctuaries through a kind of “fire-sale evangelization” — an anxious, unfocused outreach that seeks only to stave off parish closures, rather than to save human beings and radically alter our world. Crowded pews may look good, but the record shows that they won’t stay full if our hearts are empty and disconnected from God.
“You have lost the love you had at first,” the Lord laments in Revelation 2:4. If ever there were a time to fall for him once more, and to invite others to do so, it is now.
And if we do that with all our hearts, the numbers at Mass will take care of themselves.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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