Recently an article about a new municipal art project in Belgium caught my eye. It seems that hardly anyone in the village of Bossuit goes to church these days. Their local parish of St. Amelberga was shuttered in 2009, due to both a lack of attendance and a lack of funds for its upkeep. Instead of tearing the building down, or converting it to another use, the townsfolk turned it into a “ruin”, removing the roof, furnishings, and so on.
What struck me most about the story was not so much the repurposing of a deconsecrated building, but rather the way in which it was described: St. Amelberga’s was a “superfluous church”. By “superfluous”, the author meant that this was simply an extra, unnecessary building. However in a broader sense, that description pretty accurately describes how many self-identified Catholics view the Church.
The hard fact is that Catholicism seems to be going nowhere but down in Europe, and in some parts of the U.S., as well. Even in supposedly ultra-Catholic Poland, a recent survey showed that Mass attendance has now dropped to under 40%. After all the Polish people went through under Communism, and given the example of Pope St. John Paul II, this is a particularly tragic development. So we need to ask ourselves, why is this happening?
Unlike many in the commentariat, I’m not particularly interested in armchair quarterbacking the job of a bishop. His is a very difficult vocation, which I have a limited understanding of. I do, however, have a great deal of experience in being a sinful, lay Catholic. So instead, it seems to me that the solution to this problem is really quite simple. GET YOUR ASS TO MASS.
To begin with, attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is not optional: in fact, it’s one of the Precepts of the Church. Remember those? They haven’t been abrogated.
Moreover, you do not get off the hook for Mass attendance by taking an inside baseball approach. Some do not like going to Mass because their church is an unattractive building, or they don’t personally like the pastor, or because the music is bad, or because the congregation does something resembling jazz hands during the “Our Father”, or there is too much Latin, or there is not enough Latin, or the priest is a lifetime subscriber to Commonweal, or the parishioners think that women wearing trousers is a venial sin, and so on, and so forth. None of these things, by the way, are valid excuses for failing to attend Mass on Sunday.
Too many non-Catholics in Western society today have concluded that the Catholic Church is irrelevant, even malevolent, seeing it as an obstacle rather than a solution to the problems we all face. They walk past Catholic churches every day without pausing to step inside and ask questions. And they swallow, hook, line, and sinker, what the mainstream media tells them about Catholicism, without considering either the veracity of the information they’re being given, or the viewpoint of the person doing the reporting.
Yet one big reason, if not the exclusive one, as to why the world takes an increasingly dim view of Catholicism is the fact that non-Catholics do not see many Catholics actively practicing their faith in what is generally considered to be the most basic form of religious worship for Christians: going to church on Sunday. What’s more, even for those of us who are attending regularly, how often are we inviting others to come along with us, and see what it’s like? Our inactions, like actions, have consequences. If we don’t take our faith seriously, we can’t expect other people to do so.
As time goes on and society continues to circle ever-faster down the moral drain, it’s reasonable to assume that there will be more art projects like this one in Bossuit. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Those of you who should be going to Mass, and are not, can make a big difference simply by showing up. And those of you who have been faithfully showing up, can do more by taking advantage of the opportunity to bring others with you, even if they have no interest in exploring conversion, but just so that they understand better what we as Catholics believe. Our goal, then, should be to find ourselves in a world where the term “superfluous” should never be found applicable to the Catholic Church.