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Vacant pews in church – here to stay or temporary?

Churches have resumed masses and the challenge of getting parishioners back to the physical church is weighing heavily on parish priests. Is it just the ease of attending online masses from the comforts of their homes that is keeping Catholics in Malaysia away or are there other reasons? Journey With Us – Asia reports.

NOV 12. 2021:

Cathy and her husband regularly attend online masses streamed from a parish in Ireland. They are both there on the sofa on Sunday evenings and the mass timing is easy on their schedule. That is not all. They find themselves consuming more Catholic-based media content than ever before simply because they discovered a lot of online content through their own exploration and also from forwarded messages from friends and in social media groups.

“I went all over the world, listening to sermons and teachings. I got a lot (spiritually),” says Cathy, who is in her mid-50s and lives in Petaling Jaya. She and her husband have also been watching weekly movies on saints, thanks to a shared link to a movie archive.

“I do want to go back to church (to attend physical masses). I love the comfort, to just sit there. His peace envelopes me immediately when I enter the church. But what am I going back to? If I can get better sermons there (online masses), why should I?”

Push factors

She says the Irish priests pray and give sermons that touch on real issues and these speak to her strongly. “They recognise the community they are in.” She finds this lacking in the local scene, with priest not truly understanding who their congregation are.

She feels one of the main reasons for this is the fact that there was one central online mass conducted by the KL Archdiocese during the lockdowns. Her own parish in Petaling Jaya should have livestreamed their own online masses, she says, so as to keep that communal feeling that she had gotten used to. 

She says “The archdiocese could have extended live streaming ability to all parishes and shared their expertise, instead of leaving them to their own devices. Some priests did on their own and stayed connected to their parishes. Where was the spirit of collaboration between the dioceses? St Anne in BM did remarkably well with the feast day celebration last year. Other dioceses can learn from them.”

“That aside, smaller parishes would struggle, but I know of a few priests in small towns who were willing to learn to operate their laptop or mobile phone to conduct masses. How is that the big town and cities priests were not so receptive.”

“All it needed was a bit of organising (for parishes to have their own livestreaming).” She feels there was hardly any attempt by the parish priests to reach out to their flock. “What would Jesus have done in this situation?” she asks.  

There is one other matter that is at the back of Cathy’s mind. Her brother had wanted his new-born baby to be baptised but was refused by a particular priest. Her brother is a Catholic but his wife is not. The parents wanted the child baptised and were willing to take her to Sunday School and bring her up as a Catholic. Cathy had to “shop around” for a priest who would conduct the baptism and she finally found one. That child is now in her teens and her mother is the one who sends her to all her Catechism classes.

“One parent is a Catholic, so why was there a problem?” To this day, she does not know why the request was rejected.  

Recently, a member of a Facebook group aired his dissatisfaction over a decision by a parish priest on a burial matter and the manner in which it was handled. There was, however, no response from any priest.

Social media is a convenient avenue to vent out grouses, and there is no way anyone can stop it. It will be like trying to hold back an ocean with a 4 by 2 wooden plank. The clergy can either sweep these grouses under the carpet or respond. But ignoring grouses does have its perils and one of them is that aired grouses can add fuel to the flames of resentment. The clergy cannot afford another push factor at a time like this.   

This is a time when parish priests are struggling to get their pews filled up even for All Saints Day, which is a day of obligation. It was recently that churches in Malaysia were allowed to have one-third of their parishioners in church for masses, after a series of lockdowns that started in March 2020 and brief resumption of public masses.

Will lifting of dispensation be enough?

The reasons mentioned by Cathy may not seem to be strong enough to not attend physical masses. We could easily dismiss people like her and say that she is just nitpicking. We might even be able to counter all her arguments.

But the problem is public masses are not running in full capacity and there is obviously more than one Cathy out there with multiple other issues that are holding them back.

Will all this change with the lifting of the dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation? Cathy does not think so. “The church has to come to the reality that it will not always be full. The options were always there and the pandemic brought it to the front.”

“Covid is a turning point. There are two options for the Church – to reset or to reboot,” she says.

Resetting requires shutting down and starting all over again and this means going back to the drawing board. Rebooting means trying to fill up the pews using the same strategies, which is coaxing parishioners to return and get BECs to repeat the appeal to their members.

“Just opening our doors and waiting for folks to come is a failed strategy for generations, much less for today’s culture,” Marcel LeJeune, who is the founder and president of US-based Catholic Missionary Disciples, told National Catholic Reporter in July this year.

Taking things for granted

The problem could be that many had assumed parishioners would come rushing back once the church doors opened and that all the priests had to do was wait. After all, church attendance has been part of the Catholic DNA, and it is unlikely that the DNA could be altered by a tiny little lockdown that lasted less than two years. Also, Malaysia has been seeing a steady growth in the number of Catholics and dwindling church attendance was never an issue. Or did we take things for granted?

Catholic Leadership Institute president Dan Celluci was quoted as saying parishes that didn’t do anything to keep in touch with their parishioners are likely to have a drop in attendance. “If they worked through 18 months without their parish and didn’t miss it, why would they put them back into their schedule?”

Which means, parishes that reached out to its parishioners reaped their rewards. One such parish was the Our Lady of Grace Church in South Carolina which did a swift shift from low-tech to high-tech within a year.

When the lockdown hit the US in March last year, the Our Lady of Grace Church had only an iPad to work with. Now, the parish has three cameras, a high-quality microphone, a soundboard and a production room – all of which brought almost 22,000 subscribers to the parish’s YouTube channel called Grace Lily Productions. The parish won the Parish Excellence Award in November last year for its technical performance.

Parishioners ought to return for masses on their own. But Celluci has this to say: “They should because it is their Sunday obligation. But that’s not our mindset and we have to recognise that,” he added.

Do numbers matter?

Cathy asks: “Do numbers really mean anything?” Well. there is no measurement for faith and there is no direct correlation between church non-attendance and backslidden or dormant Catholics. There are people like Cathy who still practises her faith but is just not keen on attending physical masses just yet.

Maybe the Cathys out there just need some space and will eventually return to physical masses. This is where churches need to be a little more proactive and be Christ-like in going after the 100th sheep that had strayed away.

One of these sheep was Sylvia, who lives in Klang. She had not attended any physical mass since the first lockdown in March last year. She was comfortable with online masses but after much coaxing she attended a mass a couple of weeks ago for the first time.

“Only now I realise how much I missed the actual mass. It was such a beautiful experience to be back in church.”

One of the biggest pull factors for the church are the Sacraments – the Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation (Confession). A greater and more creative strategy is needed to help Catholics return to the parishes, and one of it is to educate them on the importance of these and other Sacraments.

“You can admire anything but to savour it physically and spiritually can be very different. That’s what the Eucharist offers,” says Benedict Savarimuthu, who is involved in Catholic faith formation. “A picture of an ice-cream can look delicious but until you taste it, you’ll not get the experience. Visualising is different from savouring, cherishing, internalising and intimatising, All this will always outdo any imagination. That’s what the physical experience of mass actually is.” (quote added at 9.45am Malaysia time)