I have been privileged to help out
with weekend Masses at many
different parishes—urban, small-town,
rural—in various parts of
the Midwest. Everywhere the
lament is the same: Where have
all the people gone? Our churches used
to be full. We’ve dropped one (or two)
Masses because attendance was so low.
National polls and surveys confirm
the anecdotal evidence: Since the
1950s, attendance has plummeted from
70 percent of baptized Catholics to
about 35 percent.
It is not difficult to summon “the
usual suspects” to explain this phenomenon:
People’s lives are busy. Some
work on weekends. Many Catholics,
especially younger ones, have simply
dropped out of the Church. Others are
turned off by boring homilies or insipid
music. Some feel alienated or marginalized:
women, homosexuals, those
divorced and remarried.
All true enough. But I would like to
suggest another underlying cause for
the falloff: loss of a sense of obligation. In
our time, it seems to me, the very word
obligation has suffered the same fate as
the word faithfulness in the time of the
Prophet Jeremiah: “Faithfulness has
disappeared; the word itself is banished
from their speech” (Jeremiah 7:28). In
a culture that worships freedom, obligation
does not play well.
But let’s think about that: Isn’t obligation
simply part of being human?
The dictionary defines obligation as
“something by which a person is bound
to do certain things and which arises
out of a sense of duty; the act of binding
oneself by a promise.”
Obligation is a truly noble concept. “A sense of duty” and “binding oneself
by a promise” are profoundly human
characteristics. Obligation makes possible
all manner of human transactions:
promises, contracts, verbal and written
agreements. “I give you my word”
is a beautiful way of saying, “I accept
my obligation to follow through on
what I have promised.” Human life
would be simply unbearable without a
sense of obligation.
I find it interesting that people often
have strong, self-imposed obligations
about a variety of behaviors. They
oblige themselves to a diet, to an exercise
program, to watch certain television
shows (and to tape them if they
have to miss one), to a book study or
bridge club. But somehow they don’t
make the connection with religious
Positive Values of Obligation
I do not want to return to the old negative
ways of heavy-handed, guilt-inducing
approaches to obligation. That
would only be counterproductive. I believe we can proclaim obligation as
a positive, life-affirming form of Christian
Human relationships depend for their
sustenance on the making and keeping
of promises. It is only a short step from
there to the biblical notion of covenant.
God’s promise of unfailing love is
matched by our response of faithful
obedience to God’s vision of “the good
life.” We bind ourselves to the living out
of God’s commandments in love (see
The covenant theme continues and
deepens in the New Testament. In Baptism
the child’s parents are reminded
that they are undertaking the responsibility
(obligation) of forming their
child in the Christian faith, and they
answer that they are willing to do so. In
Confirmation the young person
receives the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In
response, he or she agrees to take on the
role of disciple and witness to Christ. In
matrimony each spouse assumes the
obligation of faithful love and lifelong
fidelity to one another.
And clearly, the concept of obligation
is evident in the Eucharist. Jesus’ command
at the Last Supper was “Do this
in memory of me.” So the whole
Church is obliged to remember, to offer,
to celebrate the covenant love of Jesus
as he gave his very life for us. But that
action of eucharistic celebration will
not touch us unless we are physically
and psychologically present. What is so
wrong, then, with claiming that “we
have an obligation to participate in the
Three Gifts Given at Mass
But aside from obligation, let’s reflect on
some of the other positive values of
participating in Sunday Mass. For one
thing, we hear the Word of God proclaimed
and explained week after week.
Yes, we can read the Scriptures and
commentaries on our own, but how
many of us will do that on a regular
basis? As disciples we need to be nourished
spiritually on God’s Word. Attending
Mass every week assures us that we
will at least be at the table when the
food is served.
And how much more does that apply
to the sacrament of the Lord’s body
and blood? The haunting words of Jesus
remind us: “Unless you eat the flesh of
the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you” (John
6:53). Friends, lovers, spouses all know
that being present to each other, sharing
life with each other, is necessary for
the health and growth of the relationship.
“Communion” is the beautiful word
that describes the primary effect of
the Eucharist. Without it our relationship
with Christ will wither for lack
of nourishment. When I hear confessions
of people who have been away
from the sacraments for a long time, I
always say, “I’m so glad you’re here.
Tell me, what brought you here today?”
At least half the time, the penitent
will say something like, “I missed the
A second positive value of Sunday Mass is that we get to worship as God
desires. It is clear from the Scriptures
that God wants us to pray as individuals;
but it is equally clear that we are to
pray and worship as a community of
believers. Neither the Israelites nor the
early Christians would think of separating
themselves from the covenant community
or from their common worship.
That would be tantamount to spiritual
And I propose a third reason to affirm
the obligation of Sunday worship. It is
a crucial way of reclaiming a precious
value we are in danger of losing in our
culture: the Sabbath rest.
In our fast-paced, postmodern world,
Sunday has become just another day,
indistinguishable from the rest of the
week. It is no longer a “holy” day. It is
a day to catch up on tasks left undone
during the week, or to cram in some
leisure activity. Less and less is Sunday
a special day, a day set aside to honor
Moreover, we have lost the sense of “sabbath rest” in general—time to relax,
to nourish our spirits, to attend to relationships
with families and friends—as
an important aspect of living holistically.
So attendance at Sunday Mass
becomes like a postscript, an afterthought,
something to do if it fits into
the schedule for the day. I don’t think
we want that to happen.
Erosion of Obligation
For a long time Catholics in this country
accepted the notion that God could
ask certain obligations of them. One of
them was to participate in the Mass on
Sundays and “holy days of obligation.”
How did that sense begin to slip away?
No doubt there were a number of
causes. But from what I observed in the
1960s and ’70s, the process began in a
well-intentioned but misguided way.
Some religion teachers in Catholic
high schools and CCD classes were
telling students that they should come
to Sunday Mass because they want to,
not because they have to. At the same
time, some preachers were giving folks
in the pews a similar message: “If you’re
here only because it’s an obligation,
that’s not good enough. You should
come here because you want to.” The same ideas were appearing in Catholic
magazines and adult-education classes.
The message was not wrong in itself.
But, depending on the manner in
which it was given and the disposition
of the hearers, the results were not positive.
People could easily conclude, “To
be honest, I don’t want to be here, so
I’ll stay away. I guess it’s not an obligation
anymore, anyway.” And when students
went on to college and observed
how many of their peers absented
themselves from the Sunday Eucharist,
they fell into step. (As a side note, cultural
anthropologists have noted that
humans are nearly as “mimetic” as
most animal species. That is, they easily
imitate the behavior they see around
them. In other words, they succumb to
Making Mass More Appealing
Even if this analysis has some validity, it does not excuse us from making significant efforts to make the Sunday Eucharist more meaningful and attractive. We need to make our parish communities more inviting and welcoming.
Presiders can make greater efforts to be personable and to connect with the needs and concerns of people in the pews. We need readers who have taken the Scriptures into their hearts so as to proclaim them with passion. Homilies must relate the word of God to the daily lives of listeners. The great eucharistic prayers ought to be prayed, not merely recited. We need to choose music with words that speak to the heart and melodies that are easily learned.
At the same time, the Church will have to continue efforts to regain credibility as an institution. Among other directions, this would include reaching out with healing to victims of clergy sexual abuse, involving laity of both genders in ministry and in policy-making, doing a much better job of explaining Church teaching on human sexuality and encouraging dialogue with theologians and scholars, rather than repressing them.
Sunday Mass and Discipleship
Certainly, discipleship involves a whole set of obligations, not just Sunday Eucharist. We are obliged to grow in holiness and in likeness to Christ. Vatican II made it clear that this is the primary vocation of every baptized person. We are obliged to avoid sin and whatever leads to it, to practice the works of mercy and care for our neighbors in need, to work for social justice and equality for all persons, to exercise good stewardship of our own and the earth’s resources. So why single out Sunday worship?
In a sense, I am not. I would like to reclaim the sense of obligation for our whole Christian life. Still, I believe participation in the Sunday Eucharist is a good indicator of our commitment to discipleship. It also has great potential to nourish that commitment.
The pastoral challenge is this: How can we reclaim a healthy sense of obligation without slipping back into legalism or resentment? I believe it can be done by utilizing the human categories people are already familiar with: the promises we made at our Baptism to place love of God and neighbor as our highest priorities in life; joining ourselves with the perfect offering of Jesus in the Eucharist as our very best way of expressing our gratitude to God for all the blessings we have been given; making the Sunday/Sabbath a truly holy day by joining with our brothers and sisters in communal worship.
When we think about it, we willingly accept obligations in many other areas of our lives. We respond to the needs of our family members. We show up for work and fulfill our duties as best we can. We honor our promises to invest ourselves in the work of committees and service groups to which we belong.
Why should we resist obligations that come to us from the covenant love of our God? That covenant invites us to “remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day” and encourages us to “do this in remembrance of me.”
Counting Heads in Church on Sundays
by Carol Ann Morrow
Is it true that Sunday Mass attendance has fallen? Four sources—
Gallup, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA),
USA Today and the National Catholic Reporter—say yes and can document
the decline in numbers. In fall 2006, CARA published an
analysis of its 2005 findings, noting that some people do more
than skip Mass—they lie about it! The Georgetown-based researchers
kindly call it the “social desirability effect.” People don’t want telephone
pollsters to think them less than faithful—so they give the same answer
they would probably give their mothers: “I go to Mass every Sunday.”
CARA and other researchers can weigh such “white lies” against
statistics gathered through more impersonal Internet or MSN TV (formerly
WebTV) methods, as CARA’s Dr. Mark Gray explained in a recent
telephone interview with St. Anthony Messenger.
Statistics gathered through online methods go down some eight to
12 percentage points! CARA can also correlate its results with Gallup
polls (of the general population), which indicate that Mass attendance
peaked in 1957-8 and has declined from a high of 74 percent in the
1950s to 40 percent in 2003.
While many Mass-attending Catholics are probably saying, “I could
have figured that out by looking around on Sunday,” the reasons may
be less transparent. CARA does not attribute the decline to any scandals,
for instance, but to less “institutional loyalty.” USA Today’s late 2004
survey agrees, observing that these trends were in place years before scandals
emerged to trouble the faithful. According to the National Catholic
Reporter’s 2004 survey, a large majority of respondents said they could
be good Catholics without attending Mass every week.
In a report published in January 2005 and available online at
http://cara.georgetown.edu, CARA comments, “Baby Boomers...entered
adulthood during a time of great questioning of civic and cultural
institutions.” Declining Mass attendance, documented by all these
polls, is due more to the death of older Catholics than to new disaffection
among younger Church members.
In summary, while Mass attendance is down by nearly half from highs
measured in the 1950s, it has held steady at 33 percent since the year
2000, according to CARA. Why does Gallup report a higher figure of
40 percent? Gallup poses the question slightly differently: “Did you go
to Mass last Sunday?” (rather than “Do you go to Mass on Sundays?”).
Statistically, this variation in the question results in a higher number,
because some of those who seldom darken the church door just happened
to do so the week Gallup surveyed them!
Martin Pable, O.F.M.Cap., is on the retreat staff at St.
Anthony Retreat Center in Marathon, Wisconsin. He
conducts retreats, workshops and continuing education
programs around the country. His most recent
book is Remaining Catholic: Six Good Reasons to
Stay in an Imperfect Church (ACTA Publications).