The decline of the Catholic Church in America was happening rapidly before COVID-19. Returning to the methods that produced the radical decline in Sunday Mass attendance along with the low numbers of marriages, baptisms, catechumens, and overall members practicing their faith would be both ignorant and fatal. What we need now is a shift that runs away from the patterns of the previous decades and runs toward the apostolic fervor of the early Church.
Now that COVID-19 restrictions and its effects are beginning to loosen, there is a push for society, country, and church to return to “normal.” The implicit claim in this notion is that the way these spheres were operating pre-pandemic were worthwhile. In regards to the Church, the claim would be that the “normal” modes of operation were highly successful in forming and molding intentional disciples. However, the opposite is true.
Both before and after the pandemic, major percentages of the Catholic faithful decided to live out their life with God in the background at best or absolutely absent at worst. It has become commonplace for parishes to funnel children through faith formation and sacramental preparation knowing and accepting that between First Holy Communion and Confirmation they will disappear for a time, and that after Confirmation they will disappear forever.
Some numbers show that a portion return to get married in the Church and then leave again until they get their children baptized. However, this is no longer the case because many marriage candidates are coming to the parish to appease their parents or grandparents. So, when it is up to them, they don’t “impose” the faith on their own kids. That, along with many other factors prevalent in the culture, results in the crumbling of faith. Therefore, we need to take this time as an opportunity to rebuild how parishes exist, operate, and serve their communities.
With that being said, complaining about the issues of the past and being negative about the future will do nothing to increase the vigor of faith. Instead of simply returning to the status quo of how we operate, let us use this as a golden chance to revitalize how we preach the power of Christ’s saving love. The temporary inability for us to gather together for worship and community should push us forth to inquire how we can grow from these trials.
First, we must create an overhaul in the way we teach the faith to the next generation of disciples. Unfortunately, the vast majority of young people who make contact with the Catholic Church are in faith formation and sacramental preparation not our Catholic schools. While we must focus on implementing programs and curriculum that are academically challenging and spiritually vibrant in our Catholic schools, we must make an even greater effort to fight against the tide of failure in faith formation.
Discard, rather, annihilate the ancient textbooks we continue to use in these programs that water down the faith at best or teach heresy at worst. Center religious education around the Sacrifice of the Mass and make it a family event. The time for teaching kids after a full day at their “real school” must end. Most students are in school for at least 35 hours a week, nine months out of the year, while they are at the parish for 35 hours, give or take, for the entire year. Moving religious education to Saturday evening or Sunday before or after Mass conquers the near impossible feats of enticing parents to be involved in their children’s faith and bringing the family to the altar of sacrifice.
An education in faith that excludes Mass attendance is like asking college students to show up to a class that has no professor. We can provide the families with the teachings of the faith, but it is Christ’s presence that will transform their lives.
This also ought to be accomplished through reaching out to homeschool communities in the surrounding area as well. Invite them to events, ask parents to volunteer in giving their witness, and validate their virtuous desire to provide their children with a radical encounter with Christ. Homeschooling is on the rise and often contains pockets of vigorous followers of the Lord who should find a second home in the parish community.
Second and more specifically, make preparation for the Sacraments of Baptism, Penance, Holy Communion, Confirmation, and Marriage inspiring and somewhat rigorous endeavors. Challenge the candidates to take the next step in their faith lives while showing that these are not hoops one jumps through in order to obtain a trophy or have a graduation moment. Highlight and give witness to the momentous and life-altering nature of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church.
Baptism should be a teaching moment and a reminder to all members of the family about the saving action of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection. First Penance should be a way for parents and older children alike to return to the sacrament of forgiveness and experience Jesus’ profound mercy. Holy Communion should not be a one-time event but a habit of grace engendered by years of attending Mass as a family unit. Confirmation ought to be a time of summons for young people to own the faith and be anointed for mission.
Marriage preparation has been an epic failure for decades now, and most diocesan ministries focus more on self-help and childish games rather than the fruitful nature of matrimony as sacrament. Pre-Cana is a particularly potent moment when young people are coming to the Church for a good reason (love) and they are usually more receptive to listening to topics on sacrificial love, encounter, and the demands of faith (hence, the entire mission of Jesus Christ).
Third, and most importantly, make an initiative to have the faith be something more than just Sunday. A Eucharistic focus is paramount because we cannot claim to love someone that we do not spend time with. Jesus’ directive “to do this in memory of me” is just that, a directive that is not optional. The mandatory nature of Sunday worship is not given to control us but is simply the terms of any loving relationship.
Furthermore, we must make Sunday more than simply one hour that we give to God. Parishes can create a multitude of opportunities after Masses to give to those in need and form a more vibrant community of believers. Host a food drive, sponsor a school in a third-world country that teaches starving children, and implement a series of talks on topics of faith. Plainly put, make parishes locations outposts where the Gospel is lived out radically and where mission flows directly from the torn open hands, feet, and side of the crucified Christ at the Sacrifice of the Mass.
Normal is not good enough for the Church anymore. Let us return to the roots of our faith and let us become true disciples of Jesus: not just followers in name, but students and missionaries who stay so near to the movements of Christ on the roads of our lives that we have the dust from His feet all over us.
Then, and only then, will the decline of faith cease and the increase of holiness arise from a Church that destroys all remnants of normal for the sake of all that is right and just.
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