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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Mass Attendance & Catholic Identity

Are any of us really surprised by decreasing Mass attendance? While I would not want to fall prey to any kind of faithless cynicism, I am often more astonished about why people continue to practice their faith. We are suffering from several generations of poor catechetical formation and Catholics who have lost a sense of their faith identity. The Ordinaries of the Archdiocese of Washington have honestly faced the problem.  Offering remedies, I am reminded of Cardinal McCarrick’s vibrant preaching and Cardinal Wuerl’s effectiveness as a teacher of faith.  They have prescribed what they could to help: breaking open the Scriptures, stirring the people to holiness, and showing how the faith has meaning and importance in their lives. Priests have sought to imitate this pattern in their religious education programs and in the messages from the pulpit.

However, there are many baptized Catholics who rarely or no longer attend Mass. Some shop around and find religious meaning in other churches. Many, perhaps the larger share, drop out entirely. Children might go to Catholic schools, but the majority is missing from the pews on Sunday. When I was at St. Mary’s in Upper Marlboro, MD, in the 1990’s, I polled the sixth grade about their Mass attendance. One week only two kids out of thirty-five had gone to church— and everyone was from a home with at least one Catholic parent. Of these two, one had gone to the Evangelical church of her father. Only one went to Sunday Mass. I am making no exaggeration. This is the state of affairs and things have worsened in light of the scandals. Those upon whom we had only a tenuous hold are escaping the grasp of the Church.

I recall being party to a group of priests discussing the situation.  What could we do to turn matters around?  A number of the guys mentioned accidentals: music, welcoming, fellowship, good preaching, etc. We seemed to forget that the exodus escalated back in the 1960’s when the ancient form of the liturgy with its ritual beauty and religious chant was shelved for experimental forms. Faithful Catholics remained with the Church despite bland prayers and trite music. However, as that generation has aged and died off, younger people found Catholic worship to be a poor imitation of what Protestants can offer. Even our small African-American churches with their Gospel Masses have borrowed the music and style of the Protestant Black churches. If our accent is simply upon such accidentals and entertainment, we are bound to fail. The new mega-churches put on a much better show and without the restraints of Catholic ritual or the appeals to a moral code that has been rejected out-of-hand. One of these local Protestant churches can hold 10,000 people and the number of annual converts dwarfed what the entire Archdiocese brought in through the RCIA.  Of course, we have more than a “come-on-down” attitude.  We require months of study and reflection.  Some say that we make it too hard to be a Catholic.  And yet, others like the fact that we insure people know what they are embracing.

While certainly we should make our churches welcoming places where the liturgies are well done and the preaching is moving and authentic, we will have to find new and more aggressive ways of reaching the hearts and minds of people who no longer enter our doors. If people truly believe that every Mass is a sacramental encounter with the living Christ, then we would not have the current decline in participation. People do not understand the Eucharist at the heart of our faith. It is here where we find Jesus most present, the one who gives meaning to our lives as well as mercy and healing. We need to rediscover our own evangelistic spirit and promote in every forum possible a genuine Christian formation. A corrective will be truly holy priests who offer reverent liturgies where we discover and celebrate the mystery of God. The corrected translation of the prayers is a great help.  The poison of dissent and spiritual laziness, even among priests, must be rooted out. When the tides of change, indifference and pain assault us all, the ark of Peter is the only sure refuge.  Shepherds must make a courageous stand for the Gospel of Life, without compromise, so as to compel people to make a choice for Christ’s kingdom or for the secular castles in the sand. Priests must also inform and empower the laity to render a credible witness.  They can reach people where the clergy are unable to go.  Our Lord, himself, sent out the seventy to spread the saving Word.

Discussion on the Post


Your entry brought to mind my thankfulness for my Protestant beginnings. I “get it” (so to speak) and will work diligently to be sure my children are properly taught the faith. I do not want them to grow up and become complacent.  I think, while the Church should play a role in this, the parents are the key to ensuring that our children continue in the faith when they are no longer under our roof.

The parish I attend is wonderful in many ways but the music is seriously lacking and I very much miss the music from my Protestant church. How I would love to attend a Mass in which we have the richness of classical baroque… something that moves the soul to a deeper meeting with God.

Unfortunately, many Protestant churches have replaced the altar for a stage and communion for a sermon… and they are missing the essentials of worship… to meet our Lord in the Eucharist… and to be in His presence.

I could never go back.


Father Joe, you say a lot here that has been on my mind lately. I’m 42, a lifelong Catholic, and am only now beginning to realize how central the faith is to everything.

“Poor catechetical formation,” that says just about everything. I am going through reading the actual Catechism (the JP II revision) and find that it offers a coherent, well-reasoned, and deep view of the world. I am exploring the Tridentine Mass and daily/nightly prayer in both English and Latin.

It is as if I have lived my whole life inside a bank and have been complaining of poverty, without ever having asked “By the way, what’s in the vaults?”

I am enjoying your site, too!


Part of the problem lies in some of standards of our CCD instruction. In our parish I would venture to say that more than half don’t even know their basic prayers or even how to say a rosary. The other thing is what they learn (or do not learn) from their parents.  If they don’t attend Mass or practice their faith, what can you expect from their children?


I served as an extraordinary minister for several years at our church. When you have to prepare the hosts for Mass you really notice the attendance dropping. We have over 50 ministries at our church and are considered a “thriving” parish. However I have noticed that the “wine was running short.” I asked the pastor, of all the groups that get together at the parish, are there any who pray for the people of the parish? He said no. This disturbed me greatly. Nothing happens without prayer. God wants to pour out his grace on His people. He gave us the free will to choose. All we have to do is ask. I

We see in God’s creation an example of how the enemy robs our life from us. Many plants that are edible have poisonous look-alikes. One is life giving and one brings only death.

For a long time I have been walking around in a “false humility and a false spirit of poverty.” In the spiritual world these things misrepresent true humility and truly being poor in spirit. One is life giving the other brings only death. Just like the plants. God is not as concerned about the people who do not attend church. He is more concerned about the ones that do, and consider themselves to be righteous. Like I use to.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists four reasons why God became man:

  • To reconcile human beings to God the Father
  • That we might know God’s love
  • To be our Model of holiness
  • To make us partakers of the Divine nature

Jesus had to die so that He could be resurrected so that we can share in that divine nature.

You never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have. I had to lose everything before I realized that. I lost my son, my sanity, my job, even my husband for a time. How many others are out there walking around like me? I seemed alright on the outside, but on the inside I was dying. My son’s body was the seed that had to be planted in the ground so that new life could spring up in me. For me it is not the end of the story…it is only the beginning.

Maybe the people who are not attending church are doing so because they see this in the people who do?  Which brings me back to the original question I asked the pastor… who prays for the people of this parish?


The pastor prays daily for his parishioners and each Sunday at Mass for the people of the parish. Many are included in the petitions of the General Intercessions. Some parishes have special prayer groups. We should all pray for each other.


No, it is not in the Eucharist where we find Jesus most present. It is in the soup kitchens, the palliative care wards, the prisons and the refugee camps where He walks tall through the actions of those who may never darken a church’s door but live out the word of God through their daily lives. Feeding the hungry, clothing the homeless and visiting the lonely— THAT is where Jesus is most present.


Such a reductionist view of Christianity might satisfy the horizontal litmus test of the Obama administration; however, it would not exhaust the vertical mystery of faith that true Christians maintain.  Our intervention in the world is not our starting point.  It begins with a personal and corporate faith in Jesus Christ.  The love of God always precedes the love of neighbor.  We are to love and worship the Lord with our whole hearts, minds and souls.  Only then can we love neighbor as we should.  Christianity and our relationship with Jesus cannot be reduced to social work.  Our love for God spills over into our love of neighbor.  Look at the late Mother Teresa.  She was dedicated to the poor, the sick and the oppressed.  And yet, they also spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament and participated at daily Mass.  She writes:  “I encourage you to make your Holy Hour through Mary, the cause of our joy, and you may discover that nowhere on earth are you more welcomed, nowhere on earth are you more loved, than by Jesus, living and truly present in the Most Blessed Sacrament. The time you spend with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the best time that you will spend on earth. Each moment that you spend with Jesus will deepen your union with Him and make you soul everlastingly more glorious and beautiful in Heaven, and will help bring about an everlasting peace on earth.”

5 Responses

  1. Father Joe, the priestly homosexual and pedophile scandals have caused more harm to church membership than you can imagine. The media has been having a field day with this by ridiculing the Church and its priests. The U.S. Catholic Church dished out over 2 billion dollars to victims. How does the Church respond? “Let us pray.” The Church clergy are totally out of touch with reality. These are not the Middle Ages, where the Church could commit crimes without anyone objecting. Everything is revealed today. Thousands of clergy have been caught committing degenerate acts upon it parish members, mostly young men. It is the clergy that have to change— to become more Christ-like.


    You are very much mistaken. The response of the Church in the United States has been a lot more than simply silence or petitions to prayer. We have established one of the most comprehensive child protective policies of any organization in the nation. Here is a link to the current policy handbook for the Archdiocese of Washington.

    While there are few thousand allegations of abuse by priests worldwide over the last 50 years, the numbers here in the U.S. are counted in the hundreds (not thousands). The tragedy is that a small number of criminals have hurt a significant number of children. Passivity toward abuse was not the proper response. Many bishops treated the issue as a moral transgression where repentance and contrition might suffice. They were wrong. Today, there is a definite policy and the Church is much more proactive in dealing with charges. Men who abused children will be removed permanently from ministry. They will also be reported to legal authorities.

    My only remaining concern is the issue of truthfulness and the rights of all involved. The United Nations has sought to make political gain against the Church on this issue and thus dismiss their organizational promotion of abortion worldwide, which is the ultimate child abuse. Most priests are good and holy men despite slander to the contrary. Indeed, I would weigh with confidence the moral authority and good discipleship of the majority of our priests any day against the faithlessness and hedonism of the society around us.

  2. I could not pass on your answer to Laurie, Father Joe. I agree with it.

    I go to Mass most Sundays but I do not want to be there and when I see a young family my eyes are always drawn to them. I had our children taken from me when they were all in single digits. We had attended Mass for years as a family; then it was gone!

    When I see young families, I recall ours at that age and most times my eyes fill up with tears, as I watch frustrated parents dealing with sometimes rambunctious little ones. They are a blessing to me even as my heart is torn to shreds, as I hope and, often pray, that the same does not befall them which continues to wound our family now for two and heading into a third generation, without a concern for any of us by any priest, bishop or Pope, though many have been asked.

    I hear most every sound those children make and it is so beautiful to me. It hides my sobs and draws attention from my tears. It reminds me of my children more than twenty years ago and my grandchildren now, as precious little as I get to see them.

    The same,


  3. Well said, Fr. Joe, and Mother Theresa has always been on target. Jesus plainly teaches us, ” Love God first, with all our hearts and minds; and as a logical extension, Love each other, especially those in greatest need.”

    If we are truly “one” with God through the Eucharist we will be “one” with each other, joyfully and enthusiastically. When I’m not, I know that I have some reconciling to take care of with the Lord. Then I’m back on the path and happy.

  4. I do not go as often as I should. One of the reasons that I don’t is because I am so tired of parents bringing their small children to Mass, and not taking them out when they start to get bored. Why bother if we cannot hear the Mass?


    I would fill our churches with crying babies. But contraception and abortion has pretty much ruined that. Catholic schools are closing for lack of kids. Orphanages are ether gone or only doing outreach to mothers.

    Parents may have no choice and need to bring small children to Mass. I was introduced to the Mass as a baby as were my four brothers and two sisters. Of course, mother taught us how to behave. We watched and said our prayers. Going to Mass is a command performance. It is demanded under the precepts of the Church. Failure to participate at Mass on Sundays (through our own fault) is reckoned a mortal sin.

    Why do we go to Mass? Is it just to be entertained? We can look at the readings before we come. Hopefully the preaching will be moving… but that is not why we are there either. Do we come just for Holy Communion? Some seem to think so and pop in late, grab Jesus and go out the door before the dismissal and final blessing. Is this the fast-food-Jesus?

    The truth is that we should go, not simply for what we get but for what we give. The Eucharist re-presents the sacrifice of Calvary. The one offering that matters is given to our heavenly Father. It is our opportunity to engage in true worship. We thank the Lord and praise God. We can do that, even with annoying children.

    I had a person in my parish complain about children at church. She was also angry about the speaking out and confusion from our special learning children and adults. We try to be an inclusive community. She said that she would not come back if we were going to have those noisy “retarded people” all over the church. Forgive the use of that “R” word. To make a long story short, I told her goodbye and that we would miss her, particularly as my families and special learning parishioners were more forgiving of her anger than she was of them.

    Laurie, I share this with you, not to judge you… but maybe to spark a deeper reflection as to what it is all about. When I was a boy and Mass was in Latin, the churches were filled. Babies were crying and even nursing and pooping and in the pews. I remember Protestants making fun of the packed houses and all the messiness. But life is noisy and messy. Of course, we have a Savior who enters into our mess and saves us. God bless! Have a happy Easter!

  5. Defend marriage or the game is lost. Come the aftermath of October’s Synod, we will see just how bad things will get. My money is on much worse.

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