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Opinion: “Go out to the world”—seriously, go out!

How can we get them back? It is the question I’m sure being tossed about in countless chancery and parish meetings right now. But it’s the wrong question.

(Image: Gabriella Clare Marino/Unsplash.com)

It’s time to get back to Mass!

Really?

Why?

The calls, framed with just a bit of anxiety, are beginning to come, aren’t they? This is Cardinal Dolan’s, but perhaps you’ve seen them in your own part of the woods. I have.

Every time I run up against it, my knee-jerk response is a simple, borderline obnoxious, Why?

Cardinal Dolan does answer it, in a way:

We need medicine!
We need food for the soul!
We need vaccination from sin, Satan and eternal death!
We need herd immunity as sheep under Christ our Good Shepherd.
All this we behold at Mass!
How can we stay away?

But I am thinking his answer is not that convincing to the audience to which he’s trying to appeal. As if that audience would even hear his invitation, anyway. They’re probably not reading Catholic New York on the regular.

There’s a second part to the why response. It’s related: What have you done over the past year to show me that this should be important to me? That you actually believe that what I’m missing vaccinates me from eternal death?

Catholic apologetics experienced a bit of a renaissance over the past couple of decades, for good and for ill, and much of the concern in apologetics efforts was centered on the issue of credibility.

We need to offer a credible account of the truth of faith to the world.

Much of the time, that sense of credibility was understood in intellectual terms: Our explanation of the faith needs to be credible in a philosophical sense. It needs to make sense to a materialist, scientifically-oriented and relativist world.

Perhaps this is a moment to think about the credibility of our witness in another way:

When the world looks at how we approach faith matters, do they see a body that acts as if it believes in the vital, life-changing and shaping importance of what it preaches?

There is, of course, another sense in which this “credible witness” issue is articulated today – that is, in the question, posed mostly on social media, in relation to politics, as pundits argue that there’s no worse damage done to the credibility of Catholic claims than that done by …that particular pundit’s political opponents.

There’s validity to that – it’s an argument as old as, say, what Harriet Beecher Stowe pointed out in Uncle Tom’s Cabin – but that’s not what I’m focusing on here.

Also, of course, the very profound issue of the credible witness of an institution that has a history of protecting abusers at every level. There’s an issue to deal with, if you’re serious about wondering why people might be staying away.

But at this moment, in this space, I’m writing very specifically about the core of what the Body of Christ is mandated to do here on earth, as articulated by Jesus himself in the Gospels and through the depth and breadth of Church tradition: bring his healing, reconciling, merciful presence to the world. Face-to-face, through the works of mercy and sacramental action.

It’s time to come back to Mass!

Really? Why?

What has your Church and its ministers, lay and ordained, done to show over the past year, that they really and truly believe that this suffering world needs Christ?

What images does the American Catholic Church leave us with from the past year? What impressions? Energy? Creativity? Courage? Conviction?

Or is more…this?

Perhaps it would be clearer if you look at the situation, not from the perspective of the administrator anxious about the bottom line, but from the outside.

Perhaps from the perspective of the average person, not “Involved” in much in the parish, who, pre-pandemic did make it to Mass most Sundays, got their kids through at least First Communion and maybe even Confirmation.

What has she been through this past year?

And what has the Church offered her in comfort and assistance, especially if she’s not a known quantity in the parish, if she was pre-pandemic “nothing more” than a name on a registration list? What wisdom, what outreach, what presence, what hint that in her and her family’s suffering, confusion and frustration, Jesus offers, still and now more than ever, his consolation and hope?

Anything?

Has anyone even called her?

Has anyone reached out in a personal way at all?

Or has her main communication been a link to a livestream and an online giving portal?

Oh, but now, here’s something! ….A link to a video from the pastor, assuring this person, who, if we’re brutally honest here, wouldn’t have been “missed” on a typical pre-pandemic Sunday, because, you know, that doesn’t seem to be the charism of Catholic parishes in the best of times, oh, that he is so happy to welcome her back to the “parish family” because it’s just not the same without her there?

I’m telling you – I’m seeing some parishes where life does, indeed, seem to be back to pre-pandemic levels. I attended Holy Thursday and Good Friday at a parish where they were still doing limited, every-other row seating, they were packed, and I thought….how are they going to do Easter?

And the parishes that seem to have bounced back are those parishes that didn’t let pandemic measures stop them. Mass didn’t stop, even if congregations couldn’t be present or fully engaged – and those Masses weren’t bare bones run-throughs, either. Confessions didn’t stop. Ministry to the homebound and the hospitalized and the grieving didn’t stop. Bringing the Real Presence of Jesus into the community didn’t stop – because those pastors believed in the reality of this Real Presence, and all that it means.

They were safe. They were observant of civic regulations. But they were creative and energetic and even brave. They went to great lengths to continue to live out the Gospel in visible, helpful ways that ended up being a credible witness of the vital importance of that Gospel.

And their pews are full now. Or at least getting there!

How can we get them back? It is the question I’m sure being tossed about in countless chancery and parish meetings right now.

It’s the wrong question. It’s a clubby, cliquish, institutional question.

The right question is the same one it’s always been, in every era and situation Jesus’ friends have walked beginning with the era we’re focusing on right now in Easter Season. The apostles didn’t ask, How can we get everyone to join us in our upper room?

No, they left that room, unafraid, went out into the streets, face-to-face, and shared Good News. As Jesus says in Sunday’s Gospel reading:

‘So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this.’

Witnesses. Credible witnesses who saw the mess of the past year, not as reason to retreat, but as the best reason in the world to go out to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem – that is, the streets outside their own front door.

(Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on April 17, 2021, on the Charlotte was Both blog and is reposted here in slightly different form with the author’s permission.)


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About Amy Welborn 17 Articles
Amy Welborn is a writer currently living in Birmingham, Alabama. She is the author of over twenty books on spirituality, saints and history., including the recently released Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Their History and Meaning. Her website is www.amywelborn.com.

18 Comments

  1. “What have you done over the past year to show me that this should be important to me? That you actually believe that what I’m missing vaccinates me from eternal death?”
    .
    Well, the Pope (Vatican) is hosting a Heath Care conference, so that is something, right? I mean just cuz the participants are largely population controllers…
    .

  2. The twine blocked pews at my parish should have reopened before Ash Wednesday.They were not.Instead FEAR ruled the roost.

  3. Great article, but I just don’t see it happening. Years ago there was a priest, since gone to his reward, who did street preaching in the mountain areas of Kentucky where there were few Catholics. I haven’t read of anything similar since then. I would think that for this to happen, it would have to be taught in the seminaries.

  4. Dear Amy,
    Great reflection! Tell your audience that if they need empirical proof that the Sacraments are beneficial and do what the Church teaches, have them contemplate how much they feel they are currently being tempted and then have them go to Confession/Reconciliation. I notice when I enter a state of grace after a good confession temptation increases (or at least recognition of temptation) dramatically. When you are in a state of grace the devil becomes much more interested in you, which usually means suffering.
    God bless,
    tom

  5. I sent my offertory check every week (except one) for more than a year. I was an active member of my parish family. My “pastor” purported to be my “friend.” The toughest situation with which I’ve had to deal this year is realizing that he never was my friend. I have heard not one word from him personally in many months and only receive the flock notes that remind me to give to the Archdiocesan money grab. Imagine my disappointment and sadness. Then, imagine the sadness and disappointment of many elderly people who didn’t and haven’t returned to Mass because the coronavirus mask-wearing and social distancing are NOT being respected. The non-mask-wearing has kept many of our parishioners from attending Mass, because they don’t feel safe. BUT, send your money to the parish and the Archdiocesan fund. Really? One might begin to believe that’s all they were interested in the first place. You don’t have to come to Mass, but don’t forget to send your check for the offertory.

  6. How to “get them back?” Were they/we ever really here?

    The failure of evangelization is described by Dom J.B. Chautard in “The Soul of the Apostolate” as the absence of a “serious interior life”:

    “Piety, bred from sentiment, from surroundings, from enthusiasm, made up exclusively of observances and habits, producing only a vague belief, love without eagerness, virtue without root, a flabby piety. Sentimental piety, training up good children, incapable of character, dragged along by their feelings and imagination. Piety, powerless to give them a broad conception of the Christian life ….”

    This, from 1927. Sounds familiar.

  7. Although I will be the first to admit that bishops gave not much sign of really believing the neccessity of any of it, all the way up to the very top in Rome, it is a lot more complex issue than their own collapse.

    For me, it is the haphazard application of health protocols from diocese to diocese, and from parish to parish in an area which reopened in June, and, as nationwide in areas which reopened, masks or no masks, saw infections steadily climb with classic bell curve peak in Nov/Dec and crash in Jan, indicating herd immunity was finally showing. Our OFFICIAL numbers were 1:4 people in town had it at one time or another, the collapse in cases from 25-50 per day to now 1-2 per day average suggests 1:2 was/is infected at some point.

    Great news, but that still leave 1:2 vulnerable, and there are those such as me who refrain from the vaccine for ethical reasons, and the local infections show it is still out there and does not care about masks.

    Plus, many, again including self, have perpetual coughs or tickles, whether from certain meds, pollen, current and former smokers etc, where anyone with any manner of cough may as well wear a “NOT WELCOME” sign around neck. Two signs, actually, as I cannot wear a mask due to lung damage from decades of wearing masks/respirators in contaminated environments, and I know what works and what does not.

    Back to haphazard protocols, and masks not seemingly helping past catching a faceful from a slob who does not use a hanky or tissue, suggests also that the ORIGINAL CDC guidance was far more correct than any latest/greatest/ever-changing guidance, and that it IS primarily a contact spread thing past walking through a fresh cough/sneeze cloud or catching same directly in face. This backed up by the NATURE study published last Spring on mask effectivity which showed a SEALED (by collection device) around face surgical mask was mighty effective on infected people BUT nobody was expelling coronavirus unless they coughed or sneezed utterly overlooked by the establishment, which takes us back to contact in contaminated environments or contact with contaminated people. While parishes gleefully latch on to latests/greatest/ever-changing guidance that all that pesky wiping down can be ceased and desisted.

    Where there is no protocol on handling the hosts of which I am aware, and am talking from when they arrive at a parish. Where are they unpacked? Who handles them and how? How are they stored and then placed in a ciborium? And then generally distributed with bare hands and really the only precaution a largely ineffective mask which if used in a hazardous environment a year and a half ago would have resulted in heavy fines due to KNOWN ineffectivity.

    Oh, and many are allergic to preservatives added to non-food liquids such as sanitizer to increase shelf life, which is used just prior on hands before distributing communion hosts.

    I will return when the pandemic plays out and/or a more ethical vaccine available and am not counting on that latter anytime soon since bishops and everyone else up to the pope already collapsed on that issue as well.

    And when I return, it will NOT be to a parish which broadcast a Mass to those with unlimited internet only and then trotted communion out to the parking lot for those waiting outside the church in cars or who assembled instead in a parish hall and watched on a big screen TV.

  8. Gee, I forgot to mention our haphazard confession arrangement througout the pandemic. Even when Masses off limits, Confession was offered, in the same cramped “reconciliation room” the size of two phone booths, with just enough room for the priest to sit noodling on his cell phone, a screen/kneeler, and a chair if one wished to interrupt phone noodling.

    And not one lick of that wiped down in between penitents.

    These are the folk who are going to safely deliver Holy Communion to me?

    Meanwhile, the church allows still only limited seating for masked folk, everyone else welcome to listen on radio in parking lot or assemble in parish hall in front of a TV. While reinstating the obligation to attend.

    This was a “why bother” progressive parish before the pandemic, and is three times that since then, nearest other Masses over an hour one-way, great if you do not mind driving the wheels off your car to attend.

    Well, there HAS been a reason to attend since December, to hear the music director’s own original new Gloria and Our Father to include even new words, if you like contemporary music played on a grand piano for mood music which never stops.

    Reasons for not returning is a complex issue, and here, at least, is a many splendored thing.

  9. The anti-social distancing and mask requirements certainly don’t encourage me to start going to daily Mass again. I can barely tolerate Sunday Mass because only 50 people or so have been attending the Mass I found that isn’t too bad. I pretty much don’t want to be around any other people as long as everyone is gripped in irrational fear– and I am desperately trying to remain sane in an insane world. Each parish should be able to decide for itself what is necessary, and people should be able to vote with their feet. Some will go for the anti-social stuff, and others will run away from it– but at least everyone would have a place to go.

    But the real problem is that people simply don’t believe in Jesus Christ, or they believe in a caricature that is so far removed from the real Jesus Christ that the two would be barely recognizable as the same Person if they were put side by side. They believe in science, technology, and universalism– so why bother going to Mass or confession? The good Lord will understand. Those who have left and probably will never come back never had much faith to start– the problem has been going on for decades and the last year simply accelerated the trend. What has scared our bishops is that they thought they’d be ale to kick the can up the road to their successors– but now they see that they are going to have to deal with it themselves. That’s why they are reacting like deer with headlights in their eyes.

  10. Yikes! We so need credible witnesses. As the world distances itself from God, we put ourselves in his place. First there is proposed one theory about life and how to direct one’s life, and then there follows another. They sound good for a time, but they are Towers of Babel. Today we have a mess in every sphere and it’s getting worse by the week. For me, the call for credible witnesses to Christ must begin in my own heart. Am I a witness of peace and joy? Does my heart and mind give evidence of this as I face the messes surrounding me? Not often enough. I am challenged to believe what Christ offers and so to surrender everything to him. Here, I believe, lies credibility.

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