Author: Anonymous Member of Una Voce Scotland
Names changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned.
The ongoing Synod has been an opportunity to hear and share the concerns of fellow Catholics. It has also presented a chance to acknowledge how well the traditional rites have sustained and increased the faith of Roman Catholics in these recent years that they have been more widely available. I must admit that this second result of the synod meeting took me by surprise, in that I didn’t expect it going in. Nonetheless, this is my experience of conversing with fellow Catholics about our Church and its outreach.
At the local Synod event which I attended, members of the laity were invited to participate in a conversation with each other on the subject of our Catholic faith, as expressed both personally and communally, and the way we live out that faith in outreach (to the marginalised, the wounded, the lapsed, and others). Local members of the general public – not necessarily Catholic – were invited to participate, and the event was indeed attended by self-professed non-Catholics. Attendees were split into groups to with a conversation prompt sheet and told that our feedback would be consolidated at the end, and that that consolidated feedback would be consolidated once again at a diocesan level before being sent to Rome.
Although I am writing this piece from my own perspective (and thus, refer to my own contributions to the conversation at this event) most of the input was ultimately from my conversation partners. I will begin this article by outlining the some of the key themes that arose in our conversation as a group, organised as “problems” and “solutions”.
Problems identified by the group
People have left the church
- Attendance has been dwindling for several years and the recent closure of churches has exacerbated this. Online Masses may have discouraged people from returning.
- Entertaining weekend activities compete for people’s time
- Social Media has had a strong influence on children’s education, perhaps more than church / religious education. The absence of younger people and children is particularly noted as decreased participation of (young, able-bodied) people in church charitable outreach, and a lower number of altar servers.
Clerical Abuse Scandals
- The handling of clerical abuse has pushed certain people (victims, but also people scandalised by the issue) away from the Church. It is noted that some do still want to be Catholic, but don’t want to encounter Catholic clergy, specifically.
- Priests who do not take the time to speak to their parishioners may be unaware of their spiritual needs and fail to provide for them adequately. There is a risk that they will persist in practices that they are personally comfortable with, not realising that their parishioners aren’t deriving any spiritual benefit from them (or are even repelled by them).
[Author’s side note: I had the sense that this point was initially raised as a subtle dig at traditional priests, based on the timing of when this point was made (I note this later in my text). However, as I pointed out during the meeting, this issue could apply across the board, even e.g. to a priest who persists in a “new” evangelisation program that fails to evangelise]
Solutions proposed by the group
- People should be encouraged to forgive the clergy for past offenses
- People should be taught to value the faith
- There should be efforts to stimulate conversations about the faith (outside of Mass) and to encourage people to “take the faith home with them”
- Engagement should be made easier
- There should be more parish events to cater to different interests and needs (and to compete against other possible weekend activities), and people should be informed about these events and how to participate more easily
- In particular, there should be parish events centred around meals – this is known to work, and is Biblically-backed
- People should be encouraged to take advantage of Catholic resources (both online and offline) and social media spaces, and more of these should be created, particularly to capture the attention of young people. One idea proposed was a children’s bulletin.
Readers of traditionally-leaning media may note some familiar themes in the above points, so I feel it should be noted that the points above were raised mainly by people who – as self-professed – do not attend a church that offers the traditional rites.
This being the case, I was pleasantly surprised at how often I found myself nodding along to my conversation partners’ words. For example, it struck me when Bertie (himself a former altar boy) told of the loss of altar servers in his parish, noting that they were a strong cohort between the 60’s and 70’s that diminished sharply from the 80’s onwards, and I quote: “nowadays we have girls and boys serving and we still aren’t making similar numbers to when we only had boys”. Kat (a convert) lamented an apparent lack of personal interest in the faith in both adults and children and suggested that a solution to some of the problems we outlined would be to stimulate conversations about the faith. This could be at social gatherings after Mass, as well as promoting faith-related activities at home. In a private aside during the break, Simon asked me if I said the Rosary at home, to which I replied in the affirmative. He said that he and his wife had started saying it recently, and noted (with, I felt, disappointment in his voice) that there was “no mention of the Rosary in his church”.
This conversation prompted me to recall several online media items with laity’s responses to the 2020 CDF questionnaire on the implementation of Summorum Pontificum. Responses from regular attendees of the Traditional Mass elaborated joyfully on the spiritual riches they had received in the form of sacramentals and devotions that are either uniquely practised in the Traditional Rites, or simply promoted more in traditional communities. These include: the Rosary, blessings of personal items and dwellings, Epiphany water and blessed salt, devotions to the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart, and blessed candles (Candlemas), to name a few. Among these are physical objects that people can take home with them, as a continuous reminder of the faith at home and at work. Several parents also commented on how much support they found in traditional communities when it came to providing for children and passing on the faith. It struck me that my conversation partners were (indirectly) asking for the very things that my fellow traditional Mass attendees were thankful for already having found in the Church.
So how would my table-mates react to the suggestion that some of their “proposed solutions” were already part of the life of the Church and appreciated by a growing number of people?
When it came to my turn, I spoke briefly of my background: as I child and adolescent, I participated in Catholic youth outreach initiatives that were well-intentioned, but often missed the mark. My recollections from Children’s Mass, for example, include: a silent prayer that I wouldn’t be seen by the priest as he walked around during the homily picking out children from the pews, and the sweaty palms of children either side of me as we held hands in a circle around the altar at the consecration. I don’t recall being very aware of what was taking place right in front of me during Sunday Mass. In contrast, on the rare occasions that my catechists took me to weekday Masses, I relished the opportunity for silent prayer in an environment that didn’t put a spotlight on me or my peers. A few years later, when many of my friends left the Church, there were moments when I wondered what I was still doing here. Today, however, after I take my children to the Latin Mass, my son comes up to me holding his index finger and thumb up to my face while saying “Domme non sum dinnus” (Domine non sum dignus – “Lord I am not worthy”) and expecting me to “receive communion” from his hand. He takes a rattle in his hands and pretends that he’s ringing the Sanctus bells (kneeling down and saying “ring, ring”) and swings his hands in front of him in the act of censing (“chk, chk!”). Where I was hardly aware of – and even distracted from – what was taking place in front of me during Children’s Mass, my infant son is inspired by the traditional liturgy, his imagination fuelled with enough images, sounds, smells and actions to take him through the week.
My conversation partners, formerly quite talkative, received this account with a stony silence and shifting brows – some rose, some furrowed. The pause was broken by Shona, who wanted to add another problem to our list: “You know, we had a priest in our parish who caused a few people to leave. He wouldn’t accept any change, you see, and didn’t connect well with the people, especially not with the children. He was very set in his ways.” And that was that.
As the conversation developed, it struck me that “we should educate…” or “they need to learn…” was a fairly common formulation for proposed solutions in this conversation, such as: “people who left the church need to be encouraged to take more of an interest in the faith”. “But what about us?” I wondered. “Is there anything that we need to learn?”
This point became particularly relevant when the topic turned to outreach for the marginalised, particularly those “put off” by the Church’s handling of sexual abuse cases. Someone suggested that the response to these individuals should be to gently guide them towards forgiveness of abusers, to help them understand that being part of the church necessitated looking past the “historical” errors of those in authority. In response to this, I referred to St John Paul II as a model, suggesting that an apology to those hurt by the Church might be a good starting point for personal outreach, and that this would include an authentic acknowledgement of errors. I noted that those who leave the Church on account of scandals may be well-informed on the failures of the Church government, both current and historical, listing the recent mishandling of funds (Vatican Bank/London property investment and Peter’s Pence scandals) as examples. Our brothers and sisters would likely not be receptive to the idea of abuse being “historical” and might appreciate a more authentic admission that the government of the Church is currently not living up to the Catholic ideal for government – even while holding that the faith is true, regardless of the human failings of all Church members (ourselves included).
The conversation later turned to activities to drive engagement. I mentioned that one of the churches that I’ve attended that offers both the Traditional Latin Mass and the English Mass hosted lunches that brought together parishioners from all the Masses, and even several members of the community in the local (underprivileged) area, who were welcomed to receive a free meal. It was an event that fostered unity in the parish and served as a local charitable outreach, all-in-one. The table unanimously agreed that events centred around food valuable for outreach.
Overall, I walked away from the meeting with hope. Yes, it is frustrating to see your brothers and sisters remaining uninterested in (or even rejecting) the very expressions of the faith that they have identified a need for. That said, I am hopeful that whatever works are attempting to pull people away from the fullest and richest expressions of our Catholic faith seem to be up against human nature itself, as designed and given life by God. One might be able to mislead an earnest seeker or hide the object of their search… but only for so long. Try as you might, one can’t “distract away” that deep hunger for what is true, good and beautiful, and seekers will eventually be drawn to the fullest and richest expressions of these. If the lives of the Saints can tell us anything, it’s that God has worked wonders with far less than a heart seeking Him earnestly.
For me, attending the synod meant an opportunity to encounter and speak to people who were looking for more. I can’t be sure of how every person seated at that table received my words, and I’m even less certain that they will reach the ears of a Bishop (or the Pope!) Nonetheless, I hope that in participating in the conversation I contributed a thought that might not have been heard otherwise, and if it pleases God, will point a seeker to a helpful path.