Will they come back?

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“The situation surrounding coronavirus didn’t cause this. It may have accelerated it.”


While parishes are busy sanitizing and taping off every other pew, I find myself wondering… will they come back?

It is not a question I raise because people fear the virus. I’m not referring to whether people may be weighing whether next month is safer to return. I mean: Will they come back at all?

Perhaps Sunday Mass had been a habit for her before quarantine. Maybe there was that guilt when sleeping in on Sunday that kept him going. The family went to church because that’s what good people do.

Two months later, life seems okay. Maybe he doesn’t really notice a difference in his life related to Sunday mornings without church. The guilt is gone, and the sleep is nice. Perhaps she has gotten into a new habit of morning coffee in her pajamas while reading her Bible. God is everywhere, right? And Catholic Mass never really did much for her anyway. The family realizes how hard it was to get everyone to church on time and life seems calmer this way, so maybe they just need a break for a while.

How many people didn’t miss their parish? Or feel like they weren’t missed?

No one will notice I’m not back. I never felt at home there anyway. I didn’t get anything out of Mass, and no one seemed to care…

It might be tempting to shrug and dismiss these as people who were not active Catholics anyway. They were just punching their Sunday card. Maybe your response is something along the lines of, “Pope Benedict said the church would be smaller in the future. Only serious Catholics stick with it when the tire meets the pavement…”

But a smaller church, even if that is what we’re facing, is not what God wants. So it’s not what we should want or accept.

To be clear, the situation surrounding coronavirus didn’t cause this. It may have accelerated it.

The USCCB’s Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis recently released a video “Outreach to the Unaffiliated,” which examined the growing population of people who consider themselves “nothing” when it comes to religion. The video addressed several important aspects of engaging this growing demographic, including why so many leave the Church.

In the video, Brandon Vogt points out that these “nones” are not asking questions about purgatory or the Blessed Mother. They are questioning whether religion matters. Many are wondering if there is anything other than the material world. They have serious questions and, tragically, don’t perceive the Church as having answers. Dr. Hoffsman Ospino notes in the video that many Hispanics that leave the Church don’t do so out of anger, but simply leave by drifting away.

It might be too easy to watch the video in a detached manner, believing it is speaking about a group of people somewhere else. But these people were sitting next to you in the pew. They are in your family. They are your friends. While continuing to go to Mass, they felt detached from the Mass and the parish community. They were punching their Sunday card but didn’t know why. We have all heard the complaint, “I don’t get anything out of Mass.” You may know that is not what Mass is about, or you may be quick to point out that Jesus is giving us His very Self at Mass… but the point remains. Thousands of people in our country would probably make that comment about Mass. And now that they’ve been away… will they come back?

We aren’t evangelizing. While there are exceptions in diocese and parish, and there are amazing apostolates that have been founded over the last few decades, by and large as Catholics we do not do a good job sharing the Good News.

We aren’t teaching. People drift away and don’t even know what (and Who) they’re leaving.

We aren’t convincing. Would anyone look at me and want what I have? Do I radiate the peace and joy of the Gospel?

Strangely enough, many of us are happy with maintaining the status quo. We don’t want to change. Our parishes are getting smaller and we don’t even care. Hey, it means more space in the parking lot and less time spent in the middle of Mass on those RCIA scrutinies! Our priests are burning out and we don’t even notice, much less offer to help. We want our parish and diocese to fulfill our wants and needs, but we don’t want to be asked for money.

We don’t want to reach out to the new family sitting behind us at Mass. We’d rather grumble because their kid is noisy. We complain when parishes are closed or merged, but we don’t want to help our own parish adapt to changing needs in the community.

The future of the Church in America could be bright. But if you look at statistics such as numbers of infant baptisms or weekly Mass attendance, the trends aren’t hopeful. Something needs to change. That will take courage and creativity. It also may require some discomfort – reaching out, speaking out, and embracing change. If we really believe what we profess to believe, we will be willing to be uncomfortable.

Jesus Christ didn’t found a church for a select few. He founded a Church to evangelize the world and bring all souls back to Him. While at present we must sit in half-empty churches with pews roped off, we want them to be full someday soon. The mission of the Church is to mobilize those in the pews to get out of the pews. Her mission is for you to go out into your neighborhoods and families and workplaces and get everyone in those pews.

Again, the situation surrounding coronavirus didn’t cause this. It may have accelerated it. While videos are being made telling people how to enter and exit the churches, I find myself wondering… will they come back?


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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