The worst way to ‘connect’ with parishioners is to offer secular fads, says Dominic Scarborough
How often do we hear it said that parishes have got to “connect” more with their parishioners, give them what they want, make them feel involved, help them to participate? We are constantly told that the majority of Catholics apparently don’t want too much emphasis on sin or judgment but would rather that the Church was a welcoming place that emphasised the good in people and provided a community focus. I have no doubt at all that this is true if by “Catholics” is meant the existing parishioners who occupy and control most parishes in this country today. But in what sense are they the majority of Catholics, and what, if anything, is being done for the remainder who have chosen quite deliberately to absent themselves from this vision of Catholicism?
According to the latest statistics available, those baptised into the Catholic faith in this country number as many as five million people and yet of these a little more than 800,000 actually attend Mass in England and Wales, which includes all the recently arrived immigrants. Official statistics show that nearly a third of all those who attended Mass in 2005 were over 65 and this percentage is rising rapidly. If we consider the immigrant factor and then consider all those baptised as Catholics over the past 40 years it suggests that of those children baptised as Catholics in this country since 1965, as many as 90 per cent have abandoned the practice of their religion by adulthood. The stark reality is that parishes are dominated by ageing clergy and laity and the vision we have now is being shaped largely according to their tastes and preferences. They are of a generation that was brought up by a Church that imposed on them a keen sense of moral obligation to attend Mass. They simply want to make it as diverting and pleasant an experience as possible for themselves. Unlike these older parishioners younger Catholics feel no moral obligation to attend, and thus have simply voted with their feet. It is of these, the overwhelming majority of baptised Catholics in this country, that I ask the question, if Catholicism has become about giving the people what they want, why don’t they want it?
Perhaps the answer is that for religion of any type to have any place within a modern, pluralist society it can no longer rely on outdated cultural or tribal bonds which assume people will attend even if accommodated. The Catholic Church is no longer the primary, secondary or even tertiary means by which most younger people learn about the world or form their identities and cultural views. Consequently, for the Church to try to compete with the secular world in promoting modern music, climate change awareness, fair trade or gender equality is merely playing someone else’s tune badly. If today’s young Catholics want to know about climate change they inform themselves by going directly to the sources, not by listening to what Father says about it in his homily. By branching out into areas that are not its province religion soon loses its footing and ends up appearing ill-informed, struggling to catch up with the very secular society it is meant to be guiding – particularly if it falls in with the latest fad only for that fad to disappear or be exposed as misconceived.
In the modern, free market global village the Catholic religion needs to ask itself what it is for. If it still takes seriously the God whom it claims to serve then it is still under that solemn mandate it received to present to the world that great secret it was initiated into all those years ago. This is that God exists, He has created and sustains all things, and in revealing Himself he calls all people to a relationship of faith and love; humanity is broken and God is the remedy; and the most profound human need is the need for God.
Catholicism needs to start preaching supernatural faith and repentance again and not merely reflecting the material world back at itself. If God is presented as no more than merely our own creation or self-image, and we are not understood as humans who in our very nature lack something vital to ourselves without Him, we will never succeed in attracting new people because they will simply fail to see the point of it – because there is no point to it.
We live in a society obsessed with physical beauty, perfection and material happiness and modern people are constantly showing themselves to be prepared to apply themselves even to harsh disciplines like dieting and working out in gyms to strive for these ideals. Yet at the same time we have unprecedented suicide rates and mental illness, particularly among the young. People have enough self-affirmation from the media – they are even told to buy shampoo because they’re “worth it” – and yet they clearly often don’t feel that way in their transitory relationships or in the loneliness of their individualism. Coming to a Catholic church, where they are told to rejoice because they are the “Easter people”, is not going to challenge the pub, nightclub or health spa as an experience of joy as they understand the word. If the Church can only succeed in showing them that the gulf in their life is not a car or house or cosmetic surgery and that joy is not mere sentimentality then it has a chance.
The Church already has a tried and tested remedy for this, which is, paradoxically, what many of the current churchgoers and their clergy have wanted to excise: that by encouraging people to acknowledge and confront their own sinfulness and striving to overcome it through prayer and the sacraments they will slowly and immeasurably fill this gulf with grace. For this, the Church must turn back to prayer and place God, and not itself, at the centre of this prayer. At the same time it should re-emphasise that suffering and pain are not best papered over with folksy communal singing and hand-shaking any more than they are by narcotics or recreational sex. This suffering and pain should be placed at the feet of Him whose very presence hides in the tabernacle and the image of whose physically broken humanity hangs in every church, pleading and bleeding to heal our spiritually broken humanity with an unrequited love that, if only more people could discover, they might return and share with others.
Dominic Scarborough is a lay Catholic from the south of England. A qualified barrister and former Civil Service Principal, he has a degree in Modern History from Magdalen College, Oxford. He is a regular commentator in the press and on the internet on Catholic affairs U.K. Catholic Herald