Fr Joe Inguanez, director of the Church research institute Discern, speaks to Mark Wood in the aftermath of its latest census on church attendance, which shows a continuing downward trend.

The Sunday Mass census painted a picture of falling attendance stretching into the future. In your introduction to the publication, you speak of the need for the Church to act immediately and not blame “the world”. What sort of action do you think the Church needs to take straightaway?

There is no single action which can solve this problem. However, if I were to choose one solution, I think what we need is to change. What the Maltese Church needs is a paradigm shift in its pastoral ministry.

However, change always meets resistance. Both individuals and institutions suffer from the law of inertia. There is an urgent need to start a number of processes of re-evangelisation, and in certain cases evangelisation.

It is clear from the Gospel that evangelisation took place in a time of religious crisis. This first evangelisation was ushered by a man living in poverty, John the Baptist, who summoned his generation to a ‘metanoia’. This means no less than ‘a change of mind’.

This is what repentance implies. The Lord admonished us: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish… unless you repent, you too will all perish”. His repetition indicates the urgency. Do we think that the people whom Christ was addressing were worse sinners than we are?

It is appropriate to remember how we start every Mass, which is by confessing our mistakes, committed through “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”. We start with our personal faults, not by pointing at the other.

What are these faults that you point to?

We should not beat about the bush. I am grateful to the medical consultant who informed me of my illness without equivocating. This has greatly contributed to saving my life.

The liturgy should never be the simple repetition of liturgical texts, as if it were a mantra

We are faced with a crisis of faith. Attendance at Sunday Mass, important though this is, is not the main issue.

Read: Mass attendance set to collapse in the years to come

The strongest signs of a weakening faith are the way that many Maltese people who still identify themselves with the Catholic faith are acting in all spheres of life, and the way they solve their personal and social problems.

Social problems cannot be ignored because we are all ‘political animals’. We cannot develop our personality without being involved in social action of all sorts.

Our Lord Himself gave us a litmus test of faith when he said, “By their fruits you will recognise them”. In the same vein are the words of St James: “Faith without deeds is worthless… As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

Everyone is shocked at the clerical sexual abuse against minors and majors around the world. In no way, manner or form do I want to look the other way when faced which such a horrendous human and spiritual aberration. However, the sexual abuse should not make us forget other abuses, clerical or otherwise. 

I am pleased with the many works of charity undertaken by the Church as an institution, both in Malta and globally, and also by individuals. However, much of our ministry is often restricted to our comfort zones. St Oscar Romero was not murdered because he had built a school, a hospital or a hospice, but because he challenged the injustices in his diocese and in his country.

Clericalism is one of our comfort zones. Clericalism was described by Pope Francis as one of the strongest challenges facing the Church. Even liturgical celebrations, holy though they may be, can become one of our clerical and lay comfort zones.

One falls into the trap of clericalism when one considers the priesthood as a privilege rather than a service, when priests become the ‘officers’ of the institution rather than the servants of the people, when they choose the front rows rather than at the back seat in the temple.

There is another trap: when the laity are considered or consider themselves as the ‘lunga manus’ of the clergy.

The Latin American Bishops were warned by the Pope not to create a “lay elite” consisting of those laity who work in the ‘things of the Church’ instead of helping ordinary baptised people live their faith in everyday situations. And this applies to us too.

What is the new paradigm that you propose?

The paradigm shift which I believe in can be found expressed succinctly in the title of a book by Fr Bartolomeo Sorge SJ, Uscire dal tempio. Get out of the temple and its trappings.

We need a poor Church at the service of the poor and the lowly. It is in this way that shepherds can live “with the smell of the sheep”.

It is unfortunate that in our Church, we find different castes among clergy and laity, separated by a lack of a unifying pastoral vision arrived at after a structured pastoral dialogue. Some would argue that it is for this purpose that we had a Diocesan Synod. However, facts speak louder than documents.

Real and effective dialogue in the Church and with the world is still weak. This is not only a very sad situation but also a deleterious one. Dialogue and communication are both a basic human and spiritual necessity, and a pastoral tool. In their absence, the “communion of saints” and the “joy of the Gospel” will remain a nice poem and a colourful dream.

I am aware that there are members of both the clergy and the laity who do not agree that this is the situation we are in. However, I am sure that the silence of majority speaks louder than that!

You write in your introduction to the census that in the same way that a clerical garb does not make one a priest, liturgical vestments do not make the liturgy religious. What does make it religious?

The Italian proverb that the religious garment doesn’t make the monk can hardly be contested.

Liturgical vestments can create an ambience which Rudolf Otto, in his analysis of religious, refers to as “numinous”, which he described as a fearful and fascinating mystery. Very often this is the way God has been presented.

However, as far as Christian religious experience is concerned, this is only partially true. The Church itself is a mystery. It is a mystery because it is the Body of the Incarnate Christ. Christ is the Immanuel – God-is-with-us. Jesus was never the object of fear but of love. How could children and sinners rush after a man who was fearsome?

The aspect of Immanuel should be the heart of the liturgical action. In its millennial history the Church made many mistakes on this point. And we have some in Malta who want to present this type of liturgical drama which literally created a distance between the actors and the audience, the priest and the congregation.

Let us take just one example. The Church has dropped the use of black liturgical vestments; yet there are still a few who doggedly ignore this and also cover the walls of their church with black drape. 

Religiosity entails several dimensions, and the liturgy is one of them. But essentially Christian religiosity entails the acceptance of the supernatural in all aspects of our life. The rest is consequential.

In terms of the liturgy then, what will make, in your words, “leavers or absentees return to Sunday Mass”?

Of it nature, the liturgy is divine and human. Its main characteristic lies in the fact that it is communitarian, and participatory, and Christological. In fact, the priest was prohibited from celebrating Mass without a community; then through the biggest stretch of imagination, we reduced that community to the presence of an altar server or one person in the pews!

The liturgy should never be the simple repetition of liturgical texts, as if it were a mantra, but an expression of the joy and sorrow of God’s people in union with Christ as their Head.

When immobilism taints the liturgy it will become ritualistic or worse rubricistic. It must celebrate the adoration of God ‘here and now’ in memory of Christ. Ritual in the liturgy should have a meaning to the congregation, otherwise it will be little more than the theatre of the absurd, thus rendering the liturgy irrelevant to human needs.

Can something improve in the way celebrants are trained?

Falling attendance is a symptom of a wider malaise that the Church needs to address urgently

A lot. But please spare me the details. It’s enough to say that there is a consensus that several priests are failing in their homilies, that several commentators during the liturgy seem to be happier hearing their own repetitive comments than creating any enthusiasm among the congregation.

As far as singing is concerned, we cannot generalise and I am sure that many priests and laity are making a great effort. I do not think I can say the same about sacred music composers. It is ironic that we still sing a religious hymn on the tune of the song ‘The Carnival is Over’. This is one of the reasons why people are voting with their feet.

Is the current model of the liturgy the cause of falling attendance or is it a symptom of a wider malaise that the Church needs to address?

Without underplaying the importance of the liturgy of the Sunday Mass, I believe falling attendance is one of the symptoms of a wider malaise that the Church needs to address urgently with a systematic and holistic pastoral plan.

What we need is not specific programmes but a holistic, tenaciously pursued pastoral plan. One cannot cure a serious illness with painkillers.

Is the local Church burying its head in the sand about the situation?

The way your question is worded already indicates the restrictive mentality inherited from liturgical texts. Why should we refer to the local Church and not to the Maltese Church? Did Paul ever say the local Church of Corinth? Does not Paul speak of the early Christian communities as Churches? Don’t you think that such expressions as ‘the local Church’ reflects a frame of mind that is still living in the fear of the Protestant Reformation?

I must be honest. There are several parishes, groups and communities in the Maltese Church who are open to new and in no way unorthodox liturgical innovations.

However, I am sorry to say that unfortunately, the Liturgical Commission, instead of becoming the motor for liturgical revival and keeping alive a post-Conciliar liturgical movement, has turned itself into an office. It would be more honest if we were to rename it as the Commission for the Official Translation of Liturgical Texts! And, from under the grapevine the translation I have at hand is not something to write home about!

This immobility might explain why in 2005, 35 per cent of the attendees went to Mass outside their territorial parish, and this percentage remained constant in 2017 when 35.2 per cent acted similarly. Are we aware that this will lead to the erosion of the territorial parish as community, if this exists, at all, thus undermining its main raison d’ être?

These is still another category who want to turn the clock back. For them this has become an ideology in the Marxist sense of the concept.

At the end of the day, the ultimate mission of the Church is to draw people closer to Christ, to experience him personally. So isn’t the emphasis on regular Mass attendance rather missing the point?

I do not think that the Church is wrong in emphasising the regular attendance at Mass. Ours is a sacramental church; hence it is important for Catholics to understand that the Mass is a sign and an instrument of salvation.

However, in my opinion it would be wrong if the Church were to make this ‘the’ central issue. The greatest emphasis should be on the Sermon of the Mount and specifically on the Beatitudes. This is the core of the Good News and the Gospel of joy.

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