American parishes strive to bring Catholics back to Mass in person

Washington DC – Simply lifting the dispensation from the obligation of Sunday Mass as the coronavirus pandemic eases will not be enough to get Catholics to return to church, and some dioceses and Catholics are actively working to bring people back.

“Just opening our doors and waiting for people to come is a failed strategy for generations, let alone for today’s culture,” said Marcel LeJeune, Founder and President of Catholic Missionary Disciples , in a July 12 email to Catholic News Service.

Research by the Pennsylvania-based Catholic Leadership Institute indicates that 25 to 27 percent of mass Catholics say they attend church “out of habit,” according to institute president Dan Cellucci. Another 4% to 6%, he added, call themselves “Catholics in name only”. The research, said Cellucci, is based on 300,000 parishioners who speak one of 14 languages ​​in 43 American dioceses.

“If you looked at this and the [Mass attendance] the habit has been broken for 18 months in some parts of the country, I would say these people will not come back if they [parishes] don’t pay attention, “Cellucci said.” If they worked 18 months without their parish and didn’t miss it, why would they put them back on their schedule? “

Parishes that have done nothing to stay in touch with their parishioners are “the most exposed” to declining numbers, Cellucci told CNS in a July 14 telephone interview.

The parishes “which hold their place”, he said, or which have prospered “are those which have really connected with their people. They have forged a deep bond with the community and they work very hard there. check in with their parishioners, issue invitations – all hallmarks of what we know to be good evangelism practices at all times. “

Shouldn’t parishioners come back on their own? “Theoretically, they should do it because of their Sunday obligation,” Cellucci replied, “but that’s not our state of mind and we have to recognize it.”

The question weighed heavily on the minds of bishops and pastors for some time.

During the pandemic, “people were disconnected from each other,” said Bishop William Koenig of Wilmington, Delaware. Koenig spoke in an interview with The Dialog, Wilmington’s diocesan newspaper, before his installation on July 13 as bishop.

“By coming together as a community of faith, we are also a community. It’s not only vertical with God feeding this hunger, but it’s also horizontal where we are with each other,” Koenig said. . “Certainly, prayer is the highest way to unite us as a community, but continue to explore ways, be it prayer groups, support groups, teamwork for religious education… these means also help us come together. “

“When churches were closed, people came out of the social ritual practice of going to mass on Sunday,” said Michael McCallion, professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, in an interview with Detroit Catholic, the media outlet. line of the Archdiocese of Detroit. .

“Especially for those who are on the fence – perhaps about a number of other issues that have nothing to do with the pandemic – this practice may not resume,” McCallion added. “In the sociology of conversion, belief follows behavior. If we get out of behavior, belief fades as well.”

He said, “What we need to do now more than ever is to increase our hospitality and invite people to spend time with us in the parish. We can’t wait for people any longer; we need to go out and find them.” , McCallion said. . “Each parish should have staff dedicated to a radical hospitality ministry based on its own individual community with social events every week, not every month.”

The Archdiocese of Detroit Evangelism and Discipleship Missionary Department has assembled a “welcome guide” for use by parishes. In the playbook is a sample script for calling parishioners and a sample welcome letter to send to parishioners. “A letter from the pastor is one of the most essential messages to share with your parish community,” the playbook said.

Other elements of the playbook include the parish updating its Mass and Confession schedule on, and update their profile on Google Business.

A teenager from the Archdiocese took a page from the playbook to host a monthly series of teen summer Masses at Detroit’s Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, with monthly themed Masses.

Anthony Schena, a high school student at De La Salle Collegiate High School in the Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan, had noticed that in his home parish there weren’t many people his age attending mass.

The readings and music of Cathedral Masses will follow the theme, and after Mass there will be food and fellowship in Cathedral Square.

“Teens love to have fun and eat,” Schena told Detroit Catholic. “There will be a snow truck and community for one night, and we will have games and fun get-togethers for a short time after each of the Masses.”

“We’re trying to have fun, to do something interesting for the teens to bring them back to church,” said Christine Broses, a pastoral associate at the cathedral. “With COVID, we noticed that a lot of the young people did not return to church as quickly as the older crowd.”

In a September 2020 study from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 36% of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 35 said they planned to attend Mass less frequently when stay-at-home orders were lifted.

Bro. Kevin Gill, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea parish in Solomons, Maryland, said he had put up a large “Welcome Home” banner at the front of the church because “I want you to people make sense when they get to the parking lot that we tell them, “You are home and we are glad you are here.”

“For several weeks, our participation was almost at the pre-COVID level,” he told the Catholic Standard, the Archdiocese of Washington newspaper. “We are at the southern tip of Calvert County,” a sparsely populated part of the Archdiocese, “and it was very different here than in Washington”

Gill said that since Pentecost the parish has restored hospitality after Mass.

For Mgr. Raymond East, pastor of St. Thérèse d’Avila parish in Washington, as restrictions in the nation’s capital were gradually eased or removed, “Every week someone new came [back] and say, ‘I missed that a lot.’ They have been looking forward to coming back and they are grateful to be back. “

One of the benefits of offering Mass online, East said, is that “our audience grew outside of the parish and we had people from India, the Philippines, California [and] Europe is watching our masses. “

He added that since the opening of the church, “we are starting to have new neighbors and new members who have discovered us online and who now come in person to join the parish or at least give us a try.”

The parish will “continue to broadcast” Masses, East said. But a warning about this came from Tamra Hull Fromm, director of discipleship and teacher at the Catholic Biblical School in Michigan.

“When it comes to attending Mass, we have to ask ourselves where people were in terms of understanding the sacraments before the pandemic. Do they understand how the sacraments nourish faith and, therefore, are they part of the routine to nurture that faith? ” Fromm told Detroit Catholic. “If they don’t understand the Eucharist, why would they come back?

Fromm added, “Worship on a screen can change our minds and our theology. We are disembodied by digital culture, making it tempting for some to step away from the celebration of Mass and the importance of it. ‘Eucharist.”

LeJeune, in an undated Catholic Missionary Disciples blog post, said: “Catholic leaders need to stop asking, ‘How do we get back to the pre-COVID era? “… Our job has never been to maintain institutions. It is to make disciples. “

To do this, leaders must consider “a post-COVID parish,” he said. “The pandemic gives us a unique opportunity. Yet great changes must be bathed in discernment and prayer.”

He added, “The mission tells us why we exist. It is the engine that drives the car. We’re not going anywhere without him.

Four of LeJeune’s prescriptions for living in a post-pandemic parish are: “Let us love each other fully. Let’s serve our communities. Let us fight for what is true and good ”and“ Let’s not be satisfied with what our parishes looked like. Like in the past.”

[Contributing to this story were Karla Dorweiler and Daniel Meloy in Detroit, Richard Szczepanowski in Washington and Joseph P. Owens in Wilmington.]

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