Philippa Martyr: Those to whom we should be talking

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Why do Catholics still come to Mass? It’s an important question. Photo: CNS, Brad Birkholz
Why do Catholics still come to Mass? It’s an important question. Photo: CNS, Brad Birkholz

It’s May 2021, which means … here comes the 2021 National Count of Attendance!

I am the sort of person who gets excited about this, because I’ve been writing a lot about the Mass attendance rate in Australia. To me, this count is an excellent thermometer for taking the local Church’s temperature.

You may not agree, and of course the living stones of the Church are what matter, and the grace in people’s hearts. But I can’t measure those from the outside.

What I can measure is roughly how many people in Australia attend Mass on Sundays. And that’s a useful proxy measure for other things.

“People who are prepared to carve out a solid hour in the family weekend whirlwind must take their Mass-going reasonably seriously.”

Most of us aren’t good at getting out of bed on the weekend. We also have children who need to be driven to what feels like six different sporting events in one day.

Then there’s the school craft fair, and the fascinating local farmers’ market, and the micro-brewery free tastings, and the in-laws coming over for the afternoon. What with one thing and another, weekends are a nightmare.

People who are prepared to carve out a solid hour in the family weekend whirlwind must take their Mass-going reasonably seriously.

But it doesn’t tell us what these people really believe about Mass-going. That’s a different set of questions.

Worshippers kneel in prayer in St Mary's Cathedral during the Commemoration of the Lord's Passion. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Worshippers kneel in prayer in St Mary’s Cathedral during the Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

There are people for whom the Mass is the sun of their life. They attend Mass frequently during the week as well, and once they’re there, they usually turn their hearts and minds to God with real fervour. And there are people at Mass who aren’t mentally there at all.

They sleepwalk through it every Sunday because it’s just what they’ve always done, and it keeps the wife happy, and keeps the kids in the local Catholic school.

There are people at Mass on Sunday who believe wholeheartedly everything that the Catholic Church teaches to be true. They’re glad to be there, because they know they’re worshipping God in the way that He’s asked us to worship Him.

There are also people at Mass who have very little idea of what the Church teaches or have forgotten a lot of it. And there are people there who simply refuse to believe some of it – inevitably the stuff about sexual morality.

“What might be a good way forward for the Church in Australia is to start asking the people at Mass why they are there.”

So counting the heads is a really good start. It tells us that around 90 per cent of all people in Australia who call themselves ‘Catholic’ aren’t at Mass on Sundays. We know some of the reasons why from other studies.

They simply don’t believe much of it any more, they don’t believe they have to go each weekend, and the weekends are super-busy.

It’s likely that their parents went to Mass out of routine, and didn’t talk to their children about religion during the week.

What might be a good way forward for the Church in Australia is to start asking the people at Mass why they are there.

If we could find out what keeps people coming back, week after week, perhaps we could use this information to start getting the 90 per cent to come back home.

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