It is no secret that our parish is losing parishioners, not necessarily to other denominations, but to other parishes. Attendance is down substantially in the past couple of years with many families driving to neighboring towns where they apparently find Mass more to their liking. Reasons vary I am sure, but generally most have been upset to the point where they experience periodic anger instead of the peace of Christ in their liturgical celebration. Whether their anger is justified is a matter for discussion.
This past week, I came across an article by Father Robert Barron titled Why Catholics Leave the Church and What Can be done about it. Father Barron is writing about a survey by William Byron and Charles Zech which will appear in the April 30 edition of America magazine. While the article is primarily about people leaving the Church, the reasons cited may also apply to those vacating a parish. Many mention the Church’s teachings on divorce, same-sex marriage, contraception, and ordination of women. So why would this cause people to change parishes? After all, these Church teachings are universal. The fact is that these sins, sin as a whole actually, are not often mentioned from the pulpit. They are in our parish, however. One parishioner recently told me she was tired of being scolded at every Sunday homily.
Our priest rarely misses an opportunity to chastise the congregation for the lack of confessions or low attendance at Eucharistic Adoration. People complain that they want to be uplifted instead of being criticized when they come to Mass. Unfortunately, the truth is that few people are going to confession theses days and attendance at Eucharistic Adoration is sparse. The Sunday homily is the only opportunity to voice the pastor’s displeasure, but this weekly-reprimand approach is not working.
Father Barron wrote, “One respondent to the survey observed that whenever he asked a priest about a controversial issue, he “got rules and not an invitation to sit down and talk.” Unfair? Perhaps. But every priest, even when ultimately he has to say, “No,” can do so in the context of a relationship predicated upon love and respect.” Survey respondents also said many pastors were “arrogant, distant, aloof and insensitive.” Ideally, the splendor of the Mass would significantly overshadow any shortcomings in the personality of the priest, but in reality, the manner in which the priest interacts with his congregation greatly affects the spiritual temperature of the parish.
People can sense when a man counsels them out of Christian love and concern for their spiritual well-being. They are more likely to accept guidance when treated with soft-spoken kindness and respect rather than cold condescending criticism. One who lives in the light of Christ will radiate warmth in the way he interacts with others. He will be patient and peaceful even in times of conflict. People will be drawn to the light even when some gentle discipline is necessary.
At the same time, parishioners need to realize the priest has many duties. He cannot devote full attention to the well-being of his parishioners. The administrative requirements of the parish priests are many. Running a parish can be as daunting as running a business. There are personnel matters, budgets, reports, meetings, repairs, bills, in addition to all his liturgical duties, sick calls, funerals, weddings and catechesis for adults and children. The corporal responsibilities can limit the time available for spiritual care.
Father Barron also mentions the problem of bad preaching. The survey said many left because homilies were boring, irrelevant and poorly-prepared. While not every priest is going to be a skilled public speaker, Father Barron says, “Sermons become boring in the measure that they don’t propose something like answers to real questions.” People are always questioning, wondering, and harboring doubts. A perceptive homilist needs to provide answers. As Father Barron puts it, “When the homily both reminds people how thirsty they are and provides water to quench the thirst, people will listen.”
So what does one do when the parish priest is a bad homilist with poor interpersonal relationship skills? First, recognize that he is a Catholic priest acting in the person of Jesus Christ. He is also a human being with limitations like all the rest of us. He cannot be everything we would like him to be. Keeping it in perspective, the words spoken during the homily pale in importance in comparison to the words spoken during the Eucharistic prayer. As parishioners, we need to recognize the gift of Holy Orders that enables our priest to confect the Holy Eucharist for us each day. We should all be grateful that he said yes to his vocation.
Father Barron stresses the importance of reaching out to people who have left the Church and this may apply to parishes also. Survey respondents often said no one ever contacted them to see why they had left. In a small parish like ours, compiling a list of families or individuals no long attending would be a simple task. A personal contact or kind invitation might be all that is needed to get someone back onboard.
A caller to the Catholic Answers Live radio program last week said she wanted to join the Catholic Church and had called a parish three times to get information about their RCIA program, but her calls were never returned. Father Barron quotes his first pastor telling the parish secretary, “For many people, you are the first contact they have with the Catholic Church; you exercise, therefore, an indispensable ministry.” Consider also that we could be the last contact someone has with the Church or their parish. Let us make sure that never happens.