It is no secret that in many (if not most) Catholic diocese across the county, attendance for Sunday Mass has been in steep decline for the last 50 years. Some would even say the deadline has been precipitous in the post-conciliar-church.
Faced with this reality, many priests, pastors, and bishops have been confounded as to what can be done to stem this tide. One priest in a small Michigan diocese gave a homily as Advent started that lays out a real actionable plan that looks to the past to find hope for the future.
When Rev. Edwin C. Dwyer, of the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan received the report of the annual Diocesan attendance count, the numbers spurred him to give an epic homily.
Here is the full transcript from Father Dwyer’s Homily:
There is always hope in Christ! There is always hope in Christ! Advent is a great season of hope.
Hope, as the philosopher would say, is the desire of something with the expectation of attaining it. Hope is the desire of something with the expectation of attaining it.
So for what do we hope? Life eternal. A life forever, and free from sin in the company of God and his saints. In other words, the object, the point, the goal of our hope is God himself forever. That is the hope of all hopes, and that hope never leaves us. Even amidst the tribulations, Christ warns us about in the Gospel today. . . hope remains. Thus, amidst any tribulations, we face as individuals, as families, and as a parish. . . hope remains.
I want you to remember that. I want you to remember that hope remains as I go into the next part of my homily because it is going to sound quite bleak. It is going to sound as if we are in the midst of a tribulation, and we may very well be. Nevertheless, the call to live as saints remains. The call to bring Christ to others remains. The hope of Christ remains. Remember this.
On the Wednesday prior to this past Thanksgiving, the Diocese of Saginaw sent out the results of its annual October count. Think of this as an annual census that measures how many folks attend Mass on the weekends in every parish in its 11 counties. I am going to share some of these numbers with you today. I do so not to chastise, as you are obviously here. I do so to address the issue, and to let you know what I intend to do about it.
The entire diocese of Saginaw saw a 7.3% drop in Mass attendance this past year. Since 2013 (five years ago), the diocese as a whole has seen a drop of 23.7% in Sunday Mass attendance. Since 2005 (13 years ago) the Sunday Mass attendance in the Diocese of Saginaw has dropped by nearly 45%. Roughly 22,700 fewer souls attend Mass in this diocese than did when I graduated from CMU. I’ll say that again: 22,700 fewer souls are being fed by the Word of God, and the Holy Eucharist on Sundays since 2005: a 45% decrease. The raw population has only dropped 10%. Would any business, or political party look at similar numbers and decide to continue with the status quo? I will not do so either. We must make changes.
So, how are we doing at Our Lady of Peace? Well, our numbers are better than the diocese as a whole, and we’re significantly better off than every other parish in Bay City percentage-wise. Nevertheless, we are down a bit over 5.3% from last year. While that may be better than our neighbors, it is still a decline, and it is my responsibility as your shepherd to replenish the pews, and do so with your help.
So how am I going to do that? Well, there will be many steps, and many efforts. I’m sure I will need to adjust along the way, and I have NO intention of playing the blame game: none at all. So let’s not get bogged down with that distraction, but rather let us take steps towards renewing the parish, and diocese.
The first step is to acknowledge where we are suffering the most in terms of demographics. So, look around the pews, and take note at the proportion of old and young. I’m 36 years old. How many folks do you see my age or younger? If we do not have folks my age or younger, who will have the children to be baptized and taught in the faith? Who will be the families at this parish in 15 years? Will we be able to stay open in 15 years without the young? Personally, I don’t see how we can. Again, no business or political party would see how they could.
I want to be clear. I will rejoice in any soul I help bring to Christ. I am in this job for the zeal of souls. So if a 98-year-old man wants to be baptized, I will rejoice just as I would if a college student asked for the same thing. I’m in this to save souls, but I wouldn’t mind if I could save a parish along the way. If we are going to keep this parish afloat into the next generation, the major focus must be on what emboldens younger Catholics, and what attracts younger non-Catholics to the Church.. . . . . So what works?
Believe it or not, tradition works. So-called “old ways” are quite popular among younger Catholics. Smells, bells, classic hymns, chant, prolonged silence, and, hold on for this one, LATIN are all largely embraced by the younger generations of the Church. Furthermore, when younger non-Catholics experience these traditions they are struck by how different they are from everything else they experience in a noisy, secular culture. These “old ways” are beautiful to them, and beauty is a great place to introduce young folks to Jesus Christ.
Thus, we are going to make Sunday beautiful at Our Lady of Peace. That’s not to say it isn’t now. I have nothing but respect for all who help with our worship, but we are going to make it more beautiful with tradition. We are going to look, and sound, and smell vastly different from the rest of the world on Sundays. It will be a religious experience that, at the very least, will be memorable to the young who encounter it. We’ve already taken a few steps with Communion distribution, and the altar server attire. I have not been here long, but folks tell me they’re noticing more young families, and crying babies. And if the church ain’t cryin’, the church is dyin’. My goal is to hear a chorus of crying babies before my time here ends. To do that, however, we need to embrace what works with the young. We need to more greatly embrace timeless traditions. We cannot keep the status quo.
If you want to see a bit of what I mean by tradition, come to the 6 pm Mass at SVSU (Saginaw Valley State University). I’ll happily give you directions. It’s not the pre-Vatican II Mass, but we have restored many lost traditions that Vatican II requires us to practice to the delight of the students.
Christ commands us to watch the signs of the times. The sobering numbers of our October count, and the response of the young to restored traditions are some of those signs. If we are going to be serious about keeping our parish alive for the next generation, and about instilling faith into the young, we must acknowledge that the status quo must change.
Hope is the desire of something with the expectation of attaining it. I have great hope in a healthy future for this parish. I desire it, and I expect to attain it. I have great hope that the young people I see in the shops, and pubs in Bay City will meet Jesus Christ. I desire it, and I expect to attain it. As your pastor, I have great hope that you will get behind me in these efforts. I desire it, and I expect to attain it. God desires every soul in Bay City and beyond to reign with him in heaven after earthly death. By his power and grace, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s get this done.
photo credit Beth Erin Photography