What are we to make of “the numbers”? As the Church it is hard to ignore the large decline in attendance at Mass and reception of the sacraments, yet the Lord never seemed overly concerned with numbers; He even distrusted them.
The information can help us to gauge the effectiveness of our preaching, teaching, and engagement of God’s people; it can also be a pernicious temptation to water down the gospel just to improve our numbers. The data* below showing the change over the past fifty or so years don’t paint a pretty picture:
|Number of Priests
|Number of Sisters
|% Attending Mass Weekly
These are astonishing declines! Remember, too, that these dry figures represent individual human beings called to know, love, and serve God in the Church here on earth and one day in the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Every loss is a soul who may be lost forever.
Many want to attribute the decline to this or that cause and then propose solutions. The danger, of course, is merely trying to increase the numbers and forgetting that our mission is not to be popular but to be a colony of Heaven, a people set apart; we were promised persecution and the world’s hatred, not its esteem or love. It is not our goal to be hated, of course, but it is sometimes our lot.
These numbers should sober us and cause us to consider how we—clergy and laity—may have contributed to this decline.
It is not entirely our fault, however. The problem cannot be fully resolved merely through better techniques or more engaging presentations—and it certainly will not be rectified by watering down or even ignoring the Lord’s more challenging teachings.
Consider that even the greatest evangelizer who ever graced this world, Jesus, lost a significant number of followers because of His teachings. He was quite willing to do this because it is the truth that saves and sets us free. Better to save some than to dilute or disregard the truth and lose everyone. Many of Jesus’ followers deserted Him after He taught that the Eucharist was His true Body and Blood (Jn 6:66). Many people scoffed at His teaching against divorce (Mat 19:10). Even residents of His own home town turned on Him when He praises the Gentiles (Luke 4:29). No one could preach the way Jesus could (Jn 7:46). No one was more eloquent. No one more perfectly exuded the Holy Spirit than Christ. To these He added miracles and the personal authority of His holiness and divinity. Yet He, too, was rejected, even by some of His disciples. Think about how small the Church looked on that Good Friday at noon: only John, Mary, and a few other women stayed with Him. Yet never was the Church more pure and powerful than at that very moment.
Concern for the decline in our numbers is proper, but it should not cause us to be so overwrought that we abandon hope or lose faith in the teachings we have received from the Lord Himself. Consider well that the mainline (liberal) Protestant denominations have cast aside many Christian dogmas as well as nearly every moral doctrine in order to appeal to modernity, and their decline has been even more precipitous than ours.
One surprising thing to note is that Jesus did not seem to trust crowds; some of His most challenging teachings were addressed to large numbers of people:
- Large crowds were now traveling with Jesus, and He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:25-26).
- In the meantime, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, so that they stepped one on another, he began to say to his disciples first of all, “Beware you of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1).
- Large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there …. [And Jesus said to them] “Now I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman, commits adultery.” His disciples said to Him, “If this is the case between a man and his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt 19:1-2; 9-10).
- Truly, truly, I tell you, it is not because you saw these signs that you are looking for Me, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you (John 6:26-27).
So critical were His teachings, particularly on the Eucharist, that Jesus was willing to lose some—even many—in order to save others. A watered-down gospel cannot save. Jesus would not remove unpopular teachings to gain numbers, for that would be to lose everyone and everything.
What, then, are we to do? The answer is not complicated—we are to preach the truth. St. Paul wrote to Timothy in this regard:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:1-5).
The task is clear. We must preach the full gospel, whether it is in season or out of season. And when it is out of season (as it certainly is today) it is all the more important that we reprove, encourage, and rebuke while patiently enduring any hardship or persecution that may result.
Perhaps this decline should encourage us to be more earnest in our efforts and to look for various effective ways to reach this increasingly doubtful, skeptical, stubborn world. New methods may be considered but never an alteration of the message itself, for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings (Heb 13:8-9).
We do well to recall the strange story of the census that David took of his people (2 Samuel 24). God was displeased with the census and even issued a severe punishment for it. Why? There are many possible reasons, but something tells me that it was God’s way of saying, “David, it is none of your business how many people I have. They are mine, after all, not yours. Your strength is not in numbers but in me.” Gideon heard a similar message (Judges 7).
Jesus has sent us to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt 28:18-20).
Whether the Church is large or small, we must sow the seed of His Word. God alone knows the harvest. No matter what the numbers look like, let’s get to back to work!
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: “The Numbers” Don’t Look Good—What Should the Church Do?