The results of the recent Social Weather Stations survey on Roman Catholic (I’ll use “Catholic” from here on, for convenience) belief and practice in the Philippines have caused a stir, particularly the figure of 9 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement “Sometimes I think I might leave the Church” and another showing regular (meaning weekly) Mass attendance dropping from 66 percent in 1991 to 43 percent in 2013. (See sws.org.ph for the full report.)
The reactions from Catholic religious leaders have generally been defensive, according to an article that appeared last Wednesday. Some leaders questioned the validity of the survey itself by citing their own perceptions, mainly about churches being packed. Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez said that in his diocese, more Catholics were attending Mass and that he found “vibrancy” in 17 parishes he has attended.
Rather than being so defensive, Catholic leaders should heed the biblical injunction to read the signs of the times. Like it or not, the Catholic Church is losing its members to other religions, especially evangelical Christian groups, and there are those who simply drift away without taking on a new religious affiliation. Even the Vatican is aware of this, which is why the last two popes, as well as the present one, have called for renewed efforts at evangelization, November 2012-October 2013 having been declared the Year of Faith.
Certainly, there is more to being a Catholic than going to Mass but this observance is so central to Catholicism that the SWS figures on the practice do deserve more analysis. SWS did ask about Mass attendance as an indicator of self-rated religiosity, which was generally higher among Catholics than non-Catholics.
In my time, kids in Catholic schools were told that to miss Mass was a mortal sin and that if you died before you could confess this abominable sin, you went straight to hell. I think (hope) Catholic catechists don’t paint such horrible scenarios anymore and instead talk about what the Mass means, a reenactment of Christ’s supreme sacrifice.
To many Catholics, though, the Mass’ doctrinal aspects—for example, transubstantiation, or the belief that bread and wine become, literally, the body and blood of Christ—have little or no meaning. Going to Mass is an obligation that if not observed could bring less in life. I’ve heard people attributing their illnesses, or financial difficulties, to not having been a “good Catholic,” which is then equated with not attending Mass regularly. Conversely, when people talk about returning to the “Church” after a “life of sin,” unfailing Sunday Mass, if not daily Mass, is cited as proof of repentance.
An obligation is not the best motivation for a religious practice, so it should not be surprising if people begin to skip a Mass occasionally, then more frequently, perhaps becoming a bit more regular again in times of crisis or need, such as when taking a board exam or seeking public office. The Mass, or a novena, becomes a tool for negotiating with heaven, only to be set aside once the crisis, or the elections, are over.
No, let me correct myself about the elections. For politicians, going to Mass regularly will remain an imperative, not so much in terms of religious obligation as of display, of saying “I am a faithful Catholic, like you are.”
Catholic leaders cite attendance at mall Masses as “proof” of continuing Catholic faith in the Philippines, but my perspective is that the mall Mass itself is an attempt, almost a desperate one, to raise Mass attendance figures. If you can’t bring mall rats into churches for Mass, then bring the Mass to the malls.
The problem there is that it simply reinforces the idea of the Mass as a passive obligation. A friend of mine who is a priest is even more cynical about these mall Masses: “What do the bishops care, as long as the people give money during offertory?”
I’ve watched people at these mall Masses and many are so clearly waiting for the Mass to be over and done with. I’ve seen flirting, courting, texting (while courting?), sneaking a peek at their iPads, snacking. But what I do wonder most about is whether these mall Masses contribute anything to building a sense of community or parish, the foundation of any faith-based group.
And why is it so hard now to get people to go to Mass? Conservatives will say because it has lost its solemnity after Vatican II, what with guitar-strumming choirs and the use, horrors, of the “local dialect” (that last word said almost as if it turned the Mass blasphemous).
Liberals will say church attendance is dropping because the Mass just does not connect to people’s daily lives. I’d add, too, in the wake of the reproductive health debates, that many Catholics, including those who were in the middle when it came to the RH debate, were turned off by the way priests and bishops delivered the homily as a means to scold and threaten those who supported the bill.
For many other Filipino Catholics, the “conservative” and “liberal” labels are inapplicable; these are people who want to be able to connect religious worship with their daily lives. Evangelical Christian groups attract Filipinos because the congregation is drawn into more active participation and pastors discuss people’s daily concerns.
El Shaddai, which remains nominally Catholic, brings many evangelical Christian practices into its Mass, exemplified by the exhortation to invert umbrellas to take in blessings from heaven, and to hold up applications, passports and doctors’ prescriptions for divine intervention.
The figures on Mass attendance suggest we are moving toward becoming a nation of cultural Catholics—that is, Catholicism evolving into a cultural identity rather than a religious affiliation in the sense of agreement with doctrines and practices. This includes those who do not regularly go to Mass, perhaps going only for a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral, sometimes ending up listening to a priest railing against RH.
I should mention that this “culturalization” is happening in all the other major religions. This means that for many years to come, Catholic churches will remain full. I have no doubt about that because Mass attendance, especially in smaller communities, is important for social life.
And if the Pope visits, as previous ones did, there will be millions pouring out into the streets as they did in Manila for Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. When Pope Francis’ election was announced, all of Argentina, his home country, broke out in celebration and many newspapers noted that something like 77 percent of Argentineans are Catholics… but only 17 percent attend Mass regularly.
I’m actually not too pessimistic about these developments. In my younger years working in rural areas with the Catholic Church’s social action programs, there were places so remote that a priest could visit and say Mass only once every few weeks. But people had their own prayer services with lay leaders, and they strived to build what were then called basic Christian communities. And when the priest did visit, the Masses were indeed “vibrant,” if I may borrow the term.
I am more hopeful about a Catholic Church moving forward with members who question the meaning of passive Mass attendance, looking for ways to be Catholic in daily living, than presuming that all there is to being a Catholic is going to Sunday Mass, and never mind what they do the rest of the week.