Church needs to move with the times


A recent poll shows that only 14 per cent of young people value the Mass. For a year-and-a-half my husband, two children and I went to a weekly "underground" Mass in Beijing. On Saturday evenings, we joined 150 ex-pats in a small room in the Canadian embassy for the service.

In theory, we were breaking the rules as Roman Catholic Mass is outlawed in China, and there are dozens of priests detained in prisons. But the authorities were prepared to turn a blind eye once Chinese citizens didn't attend.

Our priest was Father John, an American Franciscan in his mid-40s. (He doesn't like to have his real name published for fear of reprisal from the authorities). During the week, Father John worked as an accountant with a big firm. But for 40 minutes every Saturday evening, he slipped vestments on over his jeans and T-shirt and ministered to his international flock, which included Irish, British, Canadian, American, Australian, Finnish and Filipino people.

We always looked forward to Father John's Mass, which was informal and inclusive. His sermons were short and to the point and his congregation never went home without something to think about. Not a man who stood on ceremony, he encouraged children to participate. Last year, an Irish ex-pat took charge of preparing seven children for Holy Communion. While Father John said Mass, Sarah gave Holy Communion class in an adjoining room. The communion day itself was a great community event.

The Mass had a charismatic feel, with lots of singing and much was made of the sign of peace. It was striking how many young people attended. We always left feeling fulfilled and the children loved it. They never complained of being "bored".

I was brought up a Catholic and it was drummed into me that the Mass, and receiving weekly Holy Communion, were all-important and the cornerstone of our religion. But back in Ireland almost three months, we find going to Mass a flat experience compared with Beijing. The ceremony is outdated and austere, and it is no surprise that our churches are almost empty of people between the ages of 15 and 35.

The sad fact is that the Mass has become a major turn-off for the majority of Ireland's young Catholics. I have been to Mass in three different churches in the last three months, and have listened to several different priests. Without exception, their sermons and services have been dull and uninspiring.

When is the church going to wake up to the fact that the Mass needs a radical shake-up? And when will it realise that people who attend the weekly service need to be stimulated? Surely the church authorities see there is something wrong in a country where 95 per cent of the people are Catholic, yet only 40 per cent believe weekly Mass attendance is important.

The most recent nationwide poll on Mass attendance, published two years ago, shows that only 14 per cent of young people value the Mass. And more women than men (47 per cent compared to 34 per cent) see weekly attendance as important.

And why is it that so often Mass has to be held in huge, cold, and often crumbling church buildings? The bright, modern churches in new housing developments, for example, are far more inviting.

ON September 23rd, the four major Christian churches in Ireland, both North and South, are to launch an initiative aimed at encouraging people to return to their faith. The "Power to Change" campaign will involve a major €2 million media blitz, including the broadcasting of religious ads for the first time on RTÉ.

There will also be billboard displays at 130 sites around Ireland featuring messages from people who say they to have found Jesus again, including golfer Bernhard Langer and singer Máire Brennan from Clannad. The campaign will be preceded by nonstop "prayer for Ireland" days from September 19th.

This major evangelistic thrust will last four weeks and will be funded by Christian businessmen. Local churches, parishes and prayer groups are being mobilised to get their members to share their faith. Thousands of people are undergoing training sessions to help them respond to inquiries about the Christian faith.

This is a welcome initiative, but by no means enough. On the surface, the Catholic Church is dying. Priests are getting old and there are very few young men entering seminaries. St Patrick's seminary in Thurles announced recently it is closing its doors because of a shortage of clerical students. Bishop Willie Walsh's recent suggestion that priests in remote, outlying parishes move together to a more central location under one roof and to minister as a team is a good one.

There is no doubt it has been a rough 10 years for the Catholic Church, shaken by sex abuse scandals. The fact that fewer people are going to Mass doesn't mean people have no faith, they just don't have the outlet to express it. People are living highly pressurised lives today and are reaching out for something to sustain them. The Catholic Church needs to move with the times. In marketing lingo, what it needs at this point is to re-brand and re-launch itself to win back its flock.