What are they thinking?

On Easter Sunday I had the privilege of serving as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion at the 9:00 am Mass.  By the time Mass began it was standing room only in the church. This was not a surprise. I bet it was the same at your parish. When it came time to distribute Communion, another person and I were asked to go to a station at the rear of the church. A line formed among those standing. At a certain point, I wondered why the line did not seem to get shorter and I realized that people were coming through the doors of the church and getting in line for Communion. After Mass, I learned that indeed people were standing three deep on the sidewalk during Mass. Because it was such a beautiful day, the doors were wide open and the music could surely be heard, but how much of the readings and homily and Eucharistic prayer did people hear?

I’ve been wondering what made them stay and what makes our brother and sister Catholics who don’t come to Mass often and maybe only at Christmas and Easter come on these feasts. On the one hand, if recent studies are correct and a majority of Catholics consider themselves as “active” if they go to Mass once a month on average, then making sure you plan to go on Christmas and Easter is a no-brainer. But for those who come infrequently, why stand on the sidewalk? Reverend Andrew Greeley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a sociologist talks about the “sacramental imagination” that is nurtured in the Catholic mind and that like Baptism seems to leave and indelible mark and so even for the Catholic who is not practicing the faith, his world view is a Catholic worldview.  Another priest pondered that maybe if a person calls themselves Christian, then at the very least they see a need to come to church on Easter to “represent” so to speak!

Always welcomed

Don’t get me wrong, I love that the congregation overflowed onto the sidewalk on Capitol Hill. What a witness to the truth that the Easter story has real meaning and continues to capture people’s imagination. When I ask “what are they thinking,” I really want to know, because if we who are serious about the New Evangelization can better understand what the pull is to come to church once or twice a year than we can use that as a starting point for helping them look more deeply at their own experience. We can better able in our preaching and teaching and conversation make a more convincing argument for how active participation in life of the church will make a real difference in every part of one’s life. Fr. Bill Byrne, the pastor, in his homily said that the story of the Resurrection does not just have meaning for a moment but rather calls for a commitment. If you believe the story, you need to make a commitment—to discipleship, to Mass, to service. How did people hear that? Are they still thinking about it today?

He knows as all of us know that it won’t be standing room only next week. When we better understand the impulse to come to church once, twice, a few times a year, we can better help our brother and sisters move from impulse to commitment. Any insights you can share with me?

24 Replies to “What are they thinking?”

  1. I have family members who are C & E Catholics (and if not that, weddings and funerals if we are lucky), and I can say that the big pull for them to get to church is family. More families go to church at those times, and the atmosphere feels friendlier and in good spirit.

    I have my own personal reasons why I am sporadic with going to church – lately it’s been because of work, illness, and things in my personal life that I won’t discuss in a public forum. When I do get to church, usually I am looking for peace and a chance to spend time praying for those close to me who have passed away recently, and all those I have seen who afflicted with physical, mental, and emotional grievances. I hope it helps, you can contact my e-mail if you would like a more in-depth response.

    1. I think you are right about the dimension of family, and that is important and ought to be encouraged. Thank you for starting the conversation and I hope that the graces of Easter will be a source of consolation, Katherine.

  2. JMJ
    As we arrived for the 8:00 Easter Sunday Mass, at about 7:30, we noticed there was a larger than normal crowd in the church. I immediately concluded that, even though this was near Shanghai, the C&E’s were filling up the pews here too.

    We waited for a little for the after-Mass prayers to be completed and for the faithful to file out.

    Nobody moved.

    An usher asked us if we needed to find a seat. We said no, we’d just wait a little and then go sit where we usually do. He said that most of them weren’t leaving. They came for early Mass, and would stay for the second Mass, too.

    These are Chinese Catholics. It was standing-room only from 0530 until nearly noon.


    1. What a beautiful experience. I know I feel like you can’t say “alleluia” or sing the Gloria enough at Easter!

  3. Well, I used to be a twice a year Christian. If I had been near a church on Easter Sunday, and there were places in the back, I would probably have gone and sat in the back and just come up for communion. If there were no places, or if there were only a few places and it meant going in and mingling with the regular folks I would probably have sat outside on the steps, listened to the music, and gone in later (maybe) just to have Communion or just to feel God’s presence (even if you felt estranged from God).

    You see, if you don’t show up regularly, then you don’t fit in. (Actually some of us never fit in depending on phenotypic, behavioral and other characteristics). So unless you go to church specifically to make some sort of a point (e.g. “God loves me even if I come to church in my most ragged t-shirt and blue jeans”) it is more comfortable to not sit with the regulars. This means sitting off to the back and sides . (Actually when I was easing back into it, (mostly because we had children in the daycare and we felt we ought to make an effort for their sakes) we spent most of my time sitting in the narthex. Then we could read the newspaper if the sermon sucked or if we felt uncomfortable for any other reason, and could slip out before the “normal people” came out.

    It is actually amazing what God can work with. I remember in high school reading my american history textbook while hiding in the undercroft. (Senior year I showed up to weekly chapel on only two occasions – one of which was graduation 🙂 ) But you can still hear the music in the undercroft, and God’s presence is still there. He finds you, even if you are trying to hide.

    In terms of the best way to reach out to such folks, coffee and small group bible study would be my suggestions, and work fairly well for Protestant churches who do this. Catholic churches don’t believe in bible study, they (I guess) prefer prayer/rosary groups instead, but you can’t jump into prayer if you are estranged from God, or were never properly catechized. Bible study, on the other hand can be approached like any other study. If you are a nonbeliever or a confused believer, you don’t need to believe the Bible to drink coffee, read and discuss it. You don’t need to agree with it to approach Scripture. And then after a while, the Word approaches you.

    1. I don’t know which Catholic churches you’re talking about, but the ones I’ve been to in six different states always have a Bible study group, and those groups are always talking to other people and encouraging them to join them in the evenings.

      1. Lucky dog. Alas now I will need to go confess my envy of you. 🙁

        Unfortunately we are blessed with truly gigantic parishes in my neck of the woods (mine is some 10,000 plus souls) for our two priests to deal with. There are almost 2000 kids in religious ed in two languages, and many of the newer ones are thought to require fairly fundamental instruction. Thus we get something called “Why Catholic?” which is dreadful pablum and most of the time is spent staring at a candle (I kid you not) and praying.

        Since the evenings are filled with compulsory religious ed catechesis, bible study is in the middle of the day. If you are a stay at home mom it is no problem. There is also a mens only group at six am, led by our pastor, but I am not a man. I did ask (beg and plead actually) to pay for and to be permitted to set up a Sunday bible study off campus (no room for it on campus, the parking lot needs to be cleared in military fashion in order to accomodate the 7 services) but we have a very careful pastor who will not permit anything that he or a diocesan approved catechist does not personally supervise, and they are all busy. And of course if you have a diocesan approved catechist, then they need to be paid, which means that it costs too much. So it is lower priority than catechesis for school children, (which of course I understand).

        The Baptists go with volunteers and they are less worried about what heresies untutored folks like me might come up with. They figure that the Holy Spirit will straighten us out. (Dunno if that’s true, the Baptists sure do schism a lot, so maybe the Catholic church has a point).

  4. A dear departed Pastor of mine referred to those who attend Mass oat Christmas and Easter only as “The CristEars”.

  5. A dear departed Pastor of mine referred to those who attend Mass at Christmas and Easter only as “The CristEars”.

  6. “Fr. Bill Byrne, the pastor, in his homily said that the story of the Resurrection does not just have meaning for a moment but rather calls for a commitment. If you believe the story, you need to make a commitment—to discipleship, to Mass, to service. How did people hear that? Are they still thinking about it today?”

    I think it is an error to believe that people can be “jawboned” into commitment. If you don’t feel it is necessary to go regularly to church, you definately are not going to make a commitment to discipleship, mass, service, tithing or anything else.

    Before commitment comes relationship. This is true of all relationships, team sports, marriage, not just God. The Catholic church’s error is that it believes that it can short cut relationship by simply insisting on commitment by thundering from the pulpit, and then refering folks to the church bureacracy with a stern order to get with the program.

    The Protestant churches are eating our lunch because they begin with informal small groups, run by lay folk in their homes or in common areas, and they develop relationships before asking for commitment. At that point you are going to church with a bunch of friends, not simply sitting in the back because you figure you owe it to your kid to see that they get sacraments or something.

    The Catholic church insists that before anybody can join, he/she needs to go through RCIA (one of the most counterproductive processes in the church if there ever was one) show up regularly etc. etc first. This is why Baptist churches are filled with de novo converts, while RCIA groups are filled with the episcopalian fiancees of Catholics who want to be married.

    Me, I do as a matter of fact tithe (the protestants taught me to), and I do show up regularly. I also do the other stuff…At least I do now…However I found the Catholic church after first having been converted by the Protestant church, and then delving deeper into relationship with God. It is unlikely that I would have found God if I had to do it in a Catholic setting from the beginning. The church is not set up for relationships and does not encourage them.

    1. I’m glad you found a Protestant to teach you about tithing, but I learned about it from my Catholic parents, and they learned it from theirs. The sad thing is that there was a period of time where CCD and homilies and in general the teachings of the Church were not being spread around/delivered in such a way that people truely understood what was being said and what they were professing to believe. I have seen a great improvement over the years for the younger generation to learn the concepts.

      Anyone can come to a Catholic church and join in the mass, the only thing we ask is that they do not join in Communion with us because it has a different meaning to them than it does for the rest of us. RCIA is a time for people to learn about what they are getting themselves in to. (I make it sound so dour, but it is a truely beautiful gift from God.) It is a time for them to question whether or not they support and can live Church teachings. That is why RCIA is necessary before becoming a full member of the Church, because you cannot be a full member if you do not have an idea and know of her teachings. One such teaching is that Sundays are holy days of obligation and must be attended. If someone decides to agree to Catholic teachings but does not follow through that is for them to live with and for the Church to say “You should be…” and let the Holy Spirit work from there.

  7. “Any insights you can share with me”

    If you wish to email me, I can go into more detail on how I went from point A to point B. However while definately G-rated and I dare say unexceptional it is, like most faith journeys, personal.

  8. Shari,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Relationship is the heart of the Christian experience and I like your image of being near when you either are not ready or don’t feel like you are “in.” I think more parishes are adopting the practice of Bible Study for just the reason you suggest. Good relationships grow when the knowledge of the other becomes deeper. The best of our RCIA programs do both! I don’t wan to sell Fr. Byrne short who also challenged the regulars about their level of commitment as well!

  9. Father Byrne was simply reminding people that they need to be faithful to Christ, not jawboning. Faith involves commitment and commitment involves effort. Since he has the opportunity to deliver the truth on only two occasions a year to a vast majority of the congregation, he has to seize upon that opportunity.

    If Churches can be overflowing on Ash Wednesday – which isn’t a holy day of obligation, Easter and Christmas, why can’t they be overflowing every Sunday? Remember, He would rather we be hot or cold, not lukewarm and to whom much is given, much is expected.

    Regarding the rest of your rant, I’ll simply pray for you and your hardened heart.

  10. It is so easy to look down on people who only show up on the two most significant days and so, I am grateful for the challenging ways in which you ask about this in such an open minded way.
    Such responses as, “sporadic with going to church – lately it’s been because of work, illness, and things in my personal life” and mention of obligations to family help me to turn from a temptation to leap to a hasty and negative judgement.
    I still sort of like the anecdote about the family of squirrels that had nested in the upper reaches of a church where they were making a mess and were disrupting services with their chittering and scuttling.
    The parish council got together to seek a solution and any use of poison, or other deadly means, was immediately ruled out because, they were God’s creatures who were merely seeking a family home. Finally the members voted money to purchase humane live traps and, upon catching the entire squirrel family, drove them many miles into the wilderness and released them.
    By the next Sunday the squirrels had made their way back and could be heard up above with their chittering and scuttling.
    After the service it was decided that stern measures were required. The animals were again live trapped, baptized and registered as members of the congregation. Now they only come around at Christmas and Easter.

  11. I come to see what crazy performances the priest has dreamt up this time to celebrate the holy day.

  12. Andrew Greeley is a priest of Archdiocese of Chicago, not a Jesuit

  13. I think the answer is spiritual. I found in my very flawed life that the Devil liked the torment I went through trying to get back into going to Church regularly. First, I felt it was an interruption in my routine. I mean, there’s soccer to watch at that time. Then, if I made it into the Church, I hated myself. I mean, all these people knew the liturgy and really prayed. I was wretched and did not deserve God’s love or to be in His house. If I got through two in a row, though, it felt better to go than to miss one week. I started to realize that, despite my wretchedness, my undeserving nature did not mean a lack of love from Him. But the Devil wages a war in our minds and hearts, bathing in self-hate that keeps many away. After a while, it gets so that the torment felt is bearable only twice a year. It’s a real shame and a miracle I broke the cycle and found God’s love worth enduring Satan’s torment. I still feel it sometimes, hating the light that mass shines upon my sin. But I go at those times because the chasm one lives in without it is too dark.

    1. I know you are not along is seeking strength for the fight. This is a nice reflection as we move toward Divine Mercy Sunday.

  14. “Regarding the rest of your rant, I’ll simply pray for you and your hardened heart.”

    I’m sorry? Was that directed at me? Actually since I live over a thousand miles away, this was not an attack on your pastor’s sermon which obvously I did not hear.

    But this is a good example of the difference between Evangelical protestants and Catholics hoping to evangelise. Catholics hearing somebody explain why (back twenty years ago) they did not attend church regularly will be shocked, offended and – if a really _good_ Catholic 🙂 would rush off to “pray for their hardened heart.” An evangelical would simply say “Wow! How cool is that? So what happened? Let me tell you what the Lord did for me, and how I came to love Him.” Then you’d shoot the breeze and both of you would leave, with your faith renewed.

    Catholics don’t do that. I can’t figure out if it is because they are shy, or because they can’t handle any disagreement or rebellion however ancient, or whether they figure that “God talk” is something their pastor is supposed to do, while their job is to keep their mouths shut and pray. (I actually think it is the latter but I’m not sure).

    I will say, that if there is anything that confirms in my mind that the Catholic church is indeed the church that Christ founded, loves and supports it is the fact that the Catholic church can grow despite the apathy of most of her members.

  15. I’ll take C&E Catholics any day of the week. In our current political climate, where Catholic traditions are under the scope and the POTUS thinks that he is just going to walk away with the Catholic vote again, I say “let them stand 10 deep on the sidewalk” – even if all they are doing is representing!

    Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth 🙂

  16. God gives us 168 hours a week, surely we can give Him one hour of our time. Jesus even asked it of his disciples in the garden of Gesthemane – to remain awake if just for one hour. Sadly, in today’s world, not too many people believe in the Real Presence anymore; if they did, the line would be out the door on Sundays. The Eucharist is at the heart of all we are as Catholics. Without it, we are merely empty vessels. We go to Mass to be fed; to empty ourselves in order to receive Him. Mass is not about us; it’s about God, and if each of us puts God first in our lives, we will always find that hour a week to spend with Him on Sunday.

  17. The Dynamic Catholic book program provides books that can be given out on C&E. These can re-engage some of the twice-a-year Catholics. Our parish gave out “Rediscover Catholicism” last year.

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