Some pastors have experienced people who register in the parish, and go to Mass for a short period of time, but leave once they get what they want: their wedding at their dream church, parish assistance with tuition, renting parish facilities at a lower rate, and the list goes on …
The Parable of the Sower by Tissot
Faith, in fact, needs a setting in which it can be witnessed to and communicated, a means which is suitable and proportionate to what is communicated. For transmitting a purely doctrinal content, an idea might suffice, or perhaps a book, or the repetition of a spoken message. But what is communicated in the Church, what is handed down in her living Tradition, is the new light born of an encounter with the true God, a light which touches us at the core of our being and engages our minds, wills and emotions, opening us to relationships lived in communion. -Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei §40
Problems in the American Catholic Church
For many in parish ministry, the faith crisis within our culture appears to be continuing with some exceptions. According to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center, 2012 was the lowest year on record for Catholic identity in America. Of those polled, there are more who chose to be labeled as not strong in their faith than those who identified themselves as strong Catholics. While Protestant identity is growing, this same report found that not only is Mass attendance dropping among Catholics, but it is also dropping among those who still consider themselves to be “strong” in their Catholic faith. 1 This means there is a growing percentage of the population that believes they can be a strong Catholic even if they don’t practice their faith.
In a 2011 Pew Research Center study, it was reported that more people are leaving the Catholic Church than converting to Catholicism. 2 Immigration makes it difficult to realize the impact this may or may not be having on our parishes. These problems, pertaining to Brazil, were confirmed by Pope Francis during his press conference on the flight home from Rio. 3
Some pastors have experienced people who register in the parish, and go to Mass for a short period of time, but leave once they get what they want: their wedding at their dream church, parish assistance with tuition, renting parish facilities at a lower rate, and the list goes on. There is also cause for concern among members of parish programs that appear to be our top participants. Jesus described a type of parishioner when he said: “The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away” (Matt 13:20-21). These are the people in our youth and adult catechetical programs who appear to be getting it, but then as soon as the program finishes, or a sacrament is received, their faith “falls away.”
The Crisis of Liturgy
There are various causes to the problems mentioned above. The purpose of this article is not to enter into a heated debate. Parish leaders must focus on how to fix the crisis. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said, “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing is, to a large extent, due to the disintegration of the liturgy…”4
I would like to take this concept of liturgical crisis in a different direction. While there has been a growth of new Bible studies, RCIA resources, youth ministry opportunities, and new media resources used in religion classes, parishes are also experiencing a new phenomenon. For many, but not all, there is an increased percentage of people in parish programs who either attend minimal liturgical celebrations, or none at all. They are enrolling in the programs even though they are not participating in parish liturgies. And, as already stated, there appears to be a steady growth of youth and adults who return to parish liturgies while in their respective programs but, as soon as they are married, confirmed, join the Church, or finish their studies, then their liturgical participation ceases.
We must no longer presume that all of our parishioners are truly a liturgical people who understand the liturgy to be the source and summit of Christian life. There are always exceptions within each parish, and the occasional parish that is exempt from this disadvantage. Yet, the consensus in statistics and experiences of parish leaders is that many parishioners are leaving the anchor of the Sacred Liturgy, or are becoming liturgical minimalists. If the liturgy is meant to be the source and summit of the life of each parishioner, then it is clear that the first step in solving the crisis mentioned at the beginning of this article is to restore the liturgy to its proper place, as the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” and as “the fount from which all her power flows.” 5 This must be done on a very practical level.
A New Format for Parish Programs
This reality must change the way many Catholic schools, religious ed programs, youth groups, RCIA programs, and adult catechesis classes operate. First, we must realize that we are blessed that many are still coming for parish programs, even though they are backing off from liturgical prayer. This provides an advantage, an opportunity. Since many are no longer coming to the liturgy, we should bring the liturgy to the parishioners, and into the programs.
This should be more than the typical exposure to liturgy in programs, but rather a weekly welding of catechesis and regular liturgies. The liturgies must become such a focus of our programs that it is clear that we put more hope in the work of God in the Sacred Liturgy, than we do in our ideas, our books, or our messages. 6 Our programs should help the people become open to God in the Sacred Liturgy while ideas, books, and repetitious messages should serve this endeavor. Priests, deacons, and lay leaders must discover ways to incorporate the Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, the Liturgy of the Hours, and confession into catechetical programs in order to re-form participants into a liturgical people.
Clerics and catechists should incorporate the liturgical celebration into each lesson plan to provide for an experience or encounter with the very person at the center of their studies, Jesus Christ. Mass, being the most ideal, is not always the easiest to incorporate, especially when priestly involvement is difficult owing to their already full schedules. The easier forms of liturgical prayer to organize, like Adoration and/or Liturgy of the Hours, could become the regular prayer forms used within the programs. When time and resources allow, the programs should seek to incorporate Mass and confession as often as possible. “The sacramental character of faith finds its highest expression in the Eucharist.” 7
The Importance of Liturgy for Catechesis and Evangelization
Without the regular incorporation of liturgy into catechetical programs, the participants in parish programs—those who are not regularly and authentically participating in liturgies—will receive an incomplete or even deformed formation. They may gain great knowledge of God, without ever knowing God. The Sacred Liturgy is one of the ways in which the Church passes on the faith. 8 It is the way the events of salvation history, studied in these programs, are celebrated and made present. 9 If Scripture is truly the soul of parish theology programs, then the liturgy is the proper context for hearing the Scriptures. 10 Specifically, the lectionary of readings used at Mass provides the way to see a unity between the varying stories of Scripture and between the Old and New Testaments. 11
Have you ever encountered a program participant who did not understand the relevance of Scripture for the modern person? The homily—either at Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours—provides an opportunity to see the relevance of the ancient Scriptures for mankind today. 12 When suggesting the participation of the lay faithful in the Liturgy of the Hours, Benedict XVI spoke of the familiarity with Scripture that comes from praying the Liturgy of the Hours. 13 Would this degree of familiarity not benefit Bible studies and Scripture classes in schools?
The Sacred Liturgy provides a unique context for catechesis. 14 Benedict XVI often referred to the Sacred Liturgy as a school. 15 It is also an opportunity for the faithful to confess their faith. 16 “In the celebration of the sacraments, the Church hands down her memory especially through the profession of faith.” 17 As these parishioners find themselves in a weekly movement between catechesis and liturgy, their faith will grow; the consistent return to the Church’s liturgy will nourish and strengthen their faith. 18 Pope Francis puts it beautifully in his first encyclical:
There is a special means for passing down the fullness, a means capable of engaging the entire person, body and spirit, interior life and relationships with others. It is the sacraments, celebrated in the Church’s liturgy. 19
These reasons demonstrate how the constant exposure and participation in the Sacred Liturgy allow a reinforcement and reception of catechesis from the law of prayer. Catechesis is not just about gaining knowledge. It is aimed at aiding one’s relationship with God, and growing that relationship. It is aimed at salvation. Without regular and authentic participation in the Mass, the parishioner is missing the normative way for Christ to continue the work of redemption in one’s life. 20 This mode of Christ’s work occurs when parishioners encounter the mysteries of Christ in the liturgy. 21 Is it not more powerful to have the students learn of Christ, and be united with Christ, than to just learn of Christ? With liturgy and catechesis, Jesus becomes the living and accessible Savior. But without the liturgy, he is studied as a figure trapped in history. A regular participation in the Church’s liturgies provides the individual with the chance to not only gain knowledge of God, but to come to know the living God. 22
Once parish programs begin to incorporate liturgy into their weekly events, pastors and catechists must find simple ways to engage in liturgical catechesis to help parishioners go deeper into the mystery of Christ, to understand the invisible at work through the visible. 23 As expressed in Lumen fidei: “The awakening of faith is linked to the dawning of a new sacramental sense in our lives as human beings and as Christians, in which visible and material realities are seen to point beyond themselves to the mystery of the eternal.” 24 This will also help our people to answer their call as missionaries to the poor and needy. It must also be noted that this accommodation, bringing liturgy to these programs, should have as a goal the eventual integration of the parishioner into the multi-generational liturgies of the entire parish and diocese. 25
In 2008, I read about an Italian priest who was frustrated with the absence of young people at the parish Mass. One day, he arrived at the local arcade, where he knew the young people from his parish were congregating, and began to set up for Mass. When the youth finished their gaming, and realized what was going on, they began to prepare for Mass. It was reported that these young people responded to the sacredness of the Mass with a reverent silence, wonder, and awe. Although I don’t think the answer to the current problem is weekday Masses at the local arcade or McDonald’s, I do think the innovative thinking of this priest was correct, and that the priority of liturgy is the first step. We must meet our people where they are, in order to bring them to where they need to be: a unified People of God with the Sacred Liturgy as the source and summit of their daily lives.
 Pew Research Center, “’Strong’ Catholic Identity at a Four-Decade Low in U.S.”, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/03/13/strong-catholic-identity-at-a-four-decade-low-in-us/
 Pew Research Center, “Leaving Catholicism,” 2009 and Revised 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux3/
 Catholic News Agency, “Full transcript of Pope’s in-flight press remarks released,” 2013, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-transcript-of-popes-in-flight-press-remarks-released/
 Ratzinger, Joseph. Milestones: Memoirs (1927-1977), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998) 148.
 Sacrosanctum Concilium, §10.
 cf. Lumen Fidei, §40.
 Lumen Fidei, §44.
 Dei Verbum, §8.
 National Directory for Catechesis, §33.
 Verbum Domini, §52.
 Verbum Domini, §57.
 Verbum Domini, §59.
 Verbum Domini, §62.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1074.
 Sacramentum Caritatis §91; Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, §93.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1124.
 Lumen Fidei, §45.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1123.
 Lumen Fidei, §40.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1069 and §1075.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1085.
 National Directory for Catechesis, §33.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1075.
 Lumen Fidei, §40.
 Sacramentum Caritatis, §63.
- Pew Research Center, “’Strong’ Catholic Identity at a Four-Decade Low in U.S.”, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/03/13/strong-catholic-identity-at-a-four-decade-low-in-us ↩
- Pew Research Center, “Leaving Catholicism,” 2009 and Revised 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux3 ↩
- Catholic News Agency, “Full transcript of Pope’s in-flight press remarks released,” 2013, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-transcript-of-popes-in-flight-press-remarks-released ↩
- Ratzinger, Joseph. Milestones: Memoirs (1927-1977), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998) 148. ↩
- Sacrosanctum Concilium, §10. ↩
- cf. Lumen Fidei, §40. ↩
- Lumen Fidei, §44. ↩
- Dei Verbum, §8. ↩
- National Directory for Catechesis, §33. ↩
- Verbum Domini, §52. ↩
- Verbum Domini, §57. ↩
- Verbum Domini, §59. ↩
- Verbum Domini, §62. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1074. ↩
- Sacramentum Caritatis §91; Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, §93. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1124. ↩
- Lumen Fidei, §45. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1123. ↩
- Lumen Fidei, §40. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1069 and §1075. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1085. ↩
- National Directory for Catechesis, §33. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1075. ↩
- Lumen Fidei, §40. ↩
- Sacramentum Caritatis, §63. ↩