There are many reasons why legions of Catholics rarely participate in the Sunday Eucharist: an omnipresent, stifling and oppressive secular culture, scandal in the Church, a spirit of doubt and unbelief, the busyness of modern life, and countless other issues. But I would like to highlight a few other problems, beginning with a lack of awareness of God’s mercy and unconditional love, coupled by a misguided and onerous sense of the obligation to worship God.
Those in the Church today are unclear on an important distinction. To be a good Catholic, you must worship God by attending Mass every Sunday — it is a precept of the Church. However, to be loved by God, you do not have to attend Mass every Sunday; in fact, you do not have to attend Mass at all. Even though missing Sunday Mass deliberately is a sin, God is infinitely merciful and loves us unconditionally, whether we are good or bad. “He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good,” in the words of Jesus. “But God proves His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” God loves us because He is mercy itself, and He lavishly bestows His love on saint and sinner alike.
It is true that the first and great commandment is to love God with all our heart and soul and strength, which naturally includes adoration in spirit and in truth. At the same time, St. John has written “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us.” Before people can truly love and worship God, they must first accept the gift of His unconditional love. We cannot assume that every person sitting in the pews has experienced being “called by name” by God, of feeling uniquely chosen and personally cherished by the Father. Many, if not most people, live with a measure of faith in God but without a heart-felt encounter with His mercy.
I also wonder if too many Catholics have a misperception of an angry and judgemental God, and a harsh and demanding Church. Countless children have grown up with an angry parent, creating the impression in the child’s mind that God is also displeased with them. As they mature, this lie tempts them to withdraw from God and the Church. So when nominal Catholics do show up — for a wedding, funeral or baptism — it offers priests a precious opportunity to communicate the essence of the Gospel, not an image of a fickle or fearsome God.
Interestingly, the same misunderstanding that drives some people to avoid God and Church can inspire the opposite reaction in some faithful Catholics. They must go to Church. They must be good Catholics. Or else God will not love them. It is a motivation inspired by fear more than love. Moreover, fearing that we are not loved as we are, but must produce or perform or be perfect to earn love, can lead to anger, bitterness and resentment — hardly the sentiments we want to inculcate among the faithful.
The brokenness of so many people in today’s culture of death may also contribute to low Mass attendance. People suffer from a depth of woundedness which was much less common in more stable Christian cultures of the past — to the point that many even doubt their self-worth as human beings. In his book Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning shares that in his experience, “self-hatred is the dominant malaise crippling Christians and stifling their growth in the Holy Spirit.” Pope Francis once referred to the Church as a “field hospital” for the sick, which should embrace not only those with physical diseases, but also those burdened by emotional and spiritual suffering.
Such woundedness is not healed by mere catechetical instruction, with the primary intention to educate people to become better Catholics. Healing requires the delicate touch of Christ and the sweet anointing of His words of peace, spoken by a priest who communicates Christ’s own tenderness, gentleness and compassion.
I believe that priests must undergo a purification of our hearts before we can communicate the Gospel more successfully, not through the distorted lens of our own unresolved issues, but with the meekness and gentleness of Christ. I would like to share one anecdote from my own ministry. In the past, I was often seething with anger, though I did my best to repress it. One Christmas, I was hurt by my father’s decision not to give gifts. Unwittingly, I allowed my bitterness toward my father to seep into my homily. I shared this story with the people, then presented a tin of Christmas cookies, pretending it was a gift for my father. But lo and behold it was empty! I recognize now it was inappropriate and unnecessary. Today I am more merciful to myself for my resentment, for I too grew up with the conviction God was angry with me. Now I am slowly becoming more tender and compassionate, and hopefully will preach the Gospel more effectively.
Do we want our parishioners to grow in holiness? Are we hoping nominal Catholics may begin to practice their faith regularly, perhaps next week or next month or next year? Then let us imitate the life and preaching of Jesus Christ, who came to call sinners, not the righteous, to repentance, with a message of infinite mercy.
Knowing we are loved unconditionally as we are can inspire in us positive growth and change. Love calls forth love, and God loved us first. When people receive this grace and allow it to sink into their hearts, minor miracles can occur. Regular parishioners, usually reluctant to actively evangelize others, might be more motivated to share this liberating and consoling truth with their friends, neighbours and co-workers. Visitors to the Church remember they heard it in the midst of the congregation from the lips of the priest; the Holy Spirit can work more readily to inspire them to return to the Eucharist to receive the total gift of Christ’s love in His Body and Blood, and we can dare to hope in an increase in Mass attendance.