As I was catching up on the Catholic news I avoided reading while on vacation the past few weeks, I saw these few paragraphs from an article by The Pillar about Mass attendance. While many people have returned to Mass, overall attendance is down 14% since the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020. It’s one of the largest declines we’ve seen. The question is why.
Some researchers have hypothesized that people who have gotten out of the rhythm of regular worship attendance are not likely to come back unless they believe the experience contributes positively to their lives — in other words, that some people who went to Mass because it was a long-standing habit may have reexemined that habit and decided not to return.
On the other hand, other survey research has found growing interest among Americans in questions about life’s meaning since the pandemic.
The situation could be ripe for new initiatives aimed at evangelization — not just “getting people back to Mass,” but an invitation to consider seriously the claims of the Gospel, as if for the first time.Source
While many hypothesize that it’s because of a lack of belief in the True Presence or the rising number of “Nones” – The Pillar offers a simple thought as explanation. “They’ve gotten out of the habit.” There are aspects of my own faith life that this is true for. While I’m still a faithful Sunday Mass attendee, a daily Mass habit I’ve had since my senior year in high school (when I woke up at 5:15 am to go to Mass and pray the Rosary before) has all but disappeared. Why? I broke the habit. I had the 12:15 Mass on my calendar from 12 to 1 as an immoveable meeting for years and then Mass stopped happening at 12:15. Then I moved to another area of town where Mass is at a different time. These are all excuses, silly ones at that – but still, they prevail. I’m slowly beginning a new rhythm at my new parish with their new daily Mass times, but it takes time to start a new habit.
It takes time to start a new habit.
How long does it take to break a habit though? A month, two weeks, one week? When we skip Mass for one Sunday, it’s easy to stay home the next week too because we know we should go to Confession before we receive again – and what’s two weeks instead of one? Two weeks becomes a month which becomes a season, etc.
That type of habit breaking has been happening for Catholics for decades as their lives get busier and busier, parishes merge or Mass times change or children get involved in weekend sports or work bleeds into the weekend.
Then it happened en masse for all of us around March 14th, 2020. At 6:15 pm I was planning to attend Mass the following Sunday and at 6:20 pm I learned that all public Masses were suspended until further notice due to the pandemic. My own parish went 8 weeks without the public celebration of Mass. Many went longer. Even more people felt the need to stay home longer for their own health and safety.
Collectively we got out of the habit. Many have gone back, but others haven’t.
So what do we do now? You might be saying, “well, start coming, get back into the habit.” I appreciate The Pillar’s additional thoughts on this though, and I’d encourage you to consider it too. Rather than inviting people to “get back into the habit,” invite them to consider the message of the Gospel as the answer to their questions about life. Many are reconsidering how they live, meaning how they work, the type of work they do, how they spend their time as a family, and what it means to be a good friend, sibling, parent, neighbor, etc.
The pandemic has given people an opportunity to reconsider how they live their lives, where they find meaning, and what they want out of life. The Catholic Faith offers a richness to Her answers to these questions. The meaning of life is richer when we consider that it’s about having a relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. We need to invite people into that relationship as they reconsider what matters to them.
How are you inviting them to reconsider this relationship? How are we focusing our parish-wide and individual evangelization efforts in this area? What are we doing to be a place for people to explore these big questions about life and meaning and purpose?