Our Sunday Opportunity
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
In March archbishops across the world issued a blanket dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday. Great debate ensued among Catholics about whether the bishops should have issued this dispensation or not. Did they have the authority to do this? Was it prudent to do this? The answers to these questions are not things I am equipped to opine on.
But the situation has been what it has been and perhaps there is a silver lining.
Throughout my Catholic schooling Mass attendance was presented as more of a threat than an opportunity. Comments from teachers such as “you had better go to Mass or you’ll be committing a mortal sin” were normal. That’s right. Miss even one Mass and “you’ll go to hell.” Positive things were said about the Body and Blood of Christ being present in the Eucharist, but this was always followed up with a stern warning about what would happen to us if we failed to participate.
We need to make disciples of all the nations (as Jesus instructed us in Matthew 28:19), not lose 6 times more people than we convert.
Maybe my situation was unique, and other young Catholics were given a wonderful formation that left them with a net positive sentiment about the great opportunity we have in attending the Mass. But anecdotal conversations I have had with acquaintances (combined with the great rout in the numbers of Catholics) lead me to believe that my experience was not unique.
I would think one scenario running through the heads of bishops before they issued their dispensations was, “Once churches start to re-open, if people aren’t required to show up, will they? Will we lose even more Catholics than we were already losing?”
The reality is that the people who failed to find edification in Catholic culture (distinct from Catholic teaching) were already leaving. There have probably been very few people who had given up on everything else Catholic but kept showing up on Sunday only because the bishop told them they would go to hell if they didn’t.
So, what’s the silver lining?
It’s the opportunity to re-frame the entire narrative into a positive one. What if instead of talking primarily about our Sunday “obligation” we talked about our Sunday or daily “opportunity” to encounter Christ? Please don’t interpret my suggestions as a proposal that the Church remove the Sunday obligation altogether. It is not. Certainly, it is possible to frame the whole thing as a positive “opportunity” while also honoring an “obligation.”
Dispensations from the Sunday “obligation” are already being lifted in some places and at some point, we can expect things to return to normal. Let’s not forget what normal was. Normal was over six times more Catholics leaving the faith than joining it. The Pew Research Center reported in 2018 that, “No other religious group… has experienced anything close to this ratio of losses to gains via religious switching.” We don’t want to go back to normal. We can’t. We must do better.
No one is threatening the millions of protestants across the world with eternal damnation should they miss a service, but they keep showing up anyway. They show up because they want to, and they do so in greater and greater numbers. What can we learn from them?
No one is threatening the millions of protestants across the world with eternal damnation should they miss a service, but they keep showing up anyway.
We as Catholics can use this opportunity to shift our focus without abandoning the Truth. The problem has been in Catholic culture, not Catholic teaching. And I am as guilty as anyone for not playing my part. It has been nice for the last few months to attend Mass with others who “want” to be there. There has been an energy and a camaraderie about it. Let’s build on this. Let’s actively live the “opportunity” of the Eucharist. We need to make disciples of all the nations (as Jesus instructed us in Matthew 28:19), not lose 6 times more people than we convert. Let’s teach our children this way. It is this and not threats that will compel others to join us and this that will compel those thinking of leaving to stay.