I was shocked to discover that 85 per cent of children and adolescents between the age of seven and 14 living in a parish in the centre of Malta do not go to Sunday Mass; and this happens to be a parish where attendance is higher than the national average! I tried to find solace by checking the rest of Malta. There was little consolation. A whopping 78 per cent within that age bracket do not go to Mass on Sunday.

These and other statistics are to be found in the 319-page report that Discern, the research institute of the Archdiocese of Malta, has just published with the full results of the Sunday Mass attendance census held on December 2 and 3, 2017. The report shows that 36 per cent of the Maltese go to Sunday Mass. In the last five decades this attendance has been regularly falling, and since 1995, attendance has decreased by just over one per cent per annum.

I was particularly shocked by the children/adolescents statistic for a number of reasons. It means that those who have spent years going to catechism classes in parish centres and schools for first Holy Communion and then Confirmation are not impressed by what they have been taught, so much so that they opt out of Sunday Mass. It means that adolescents who have formally and publicly committed themselves towards the Catholic faith during Confirmation do not take their commitment seriously enough.

Read: Mass attendance set to fall further in years to come

Are our catechism lessons so distant from the lives of children and adolescents or is there another reason to explain this massive absenteeism?

The trend continues in later years. News about those in the 15 to 24 age bracket is also bleak. Eighty-one per cent do not go to church on Sunday. Only among the over-65s is there a majority that goes to church on Sunday; another indicative statistic of where we are heading to.

It is said: catch them young. In the case of the Church it is: lose them young!

It is said: catch them young. In the case of the Church it is: lose them young!

Some may say, and rightly so, that Sunday Mass attendance is just one facet of being a good Catholic. These point to some ‘positive’ results of a survey that was conducted concurrently with the census: 95 per cent say that they believe in God while 92 per cent describe themselves as Catholic. There are un­doubtedly positive pointers on which one can build. But to those who minimise the importance of Mass attendance I wish to point out what Vatican Council II wrote in its document on the topic:

“No Christian community... is built up unless it has its basis and centre in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist; from this, therefore, all education to the spirit of community must take its origin. This celebration, if it is to be genuine and complete, should lead to various works of charity and mutual help, as well as to missionary activity and to different forms of Christian witness.”

The questions beg themselves: since  Mass is so important, how did we fail to communicate its importance? Do the Masses we celebrate every Sunday reflect the description just quoted from Vatican II? Do they provoke a strong spirit of community? Hardly, is the honest answer.

I am not saying that what follows is the answer or solution to the problem, if a there is a solution. It is just my two cents’ worth on the subject.

My first suggestion is to conduct research on the intentions and feelings of those who go to Sunday Mass. Why do they go? Do they find it an uplifting spiritual experience and an enjoyable human one? Do they feel part of a community or is it mainly an individua­listic exercise? If the answer is in the negative it means that tomorrow’s statistics will be worse than today’s. The downward trend can be stopped or decreased only if those who go to Mass find it to be a worthwhile and positive experience that they convincingly communicate to others.

Engagement with people who choose to absent themselves, asking them why they do so, is also essential. The results of the survey I referred to show that 30 per cent don’t go because they either do not agree with what the Church or the priest says or do not find the Mass relevant. Another 24 per cent mentioned laziness or lack or time. One in 10 do not like going to church. 

These varied reasons indicate that the issue is complex and that there are no easy solutions. But some groups (e.g. laziness) are perhaps easier to work with than those who do not agree with Church teaching. A strategy has to be devised.

The Christian community in general, and we priests in particular, have a grave moral duty to make the celebration of the Mass a meaningful experience of faith and a worthwhile human experience. Just pointing fingers at homilies will not solve the problem. The Mass is much more than the homily, and consequently there is much more than the homily that needs to be put right during the celebration, and so much more needs to be done apart from the celebration.

joseph.borg@um.edu.mt

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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