Church Life,  Faith and Life,  Opinion

Empty Chairs

I’ve noticed that whenever there is a specifically religious event taking place, there seems to be something of a sense of unadulterated joy expressed, proclaiming that the faith is being lived out fully in whichever place that event has been held.

I saw something of this sort on two occasions in recent memory – the first was the visit to Carfin of the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux a couple of years ago; and most recently, the visit of the relics of Saint Bernadette Soubirous. Each visit was accompanied by the public declaration that “the faith is alive and well” – this, based on the numbers of people visiting the Grotto to venerate the relics. And there is no doubt whatsoever that both occasions generated vast numbers of pilgrims. But where was everyone else?

Consequently, I remain unconvinced that the faith is quite so ‘alive and well’ as some would have us believe.

You see, it’s not necessarily a robust assessment of the vitality of the faith if it is being based on a very specific occasion such as the visit of relics of two enormously popular Saints, when those relics have never been here previously, and which many people – especially over the last few years – had no hope of seeing otherwise. Further, such visits attract people from across a wide geographical area – these are not simply the local Catholic population. That particular group, had they all been present, would have been measured in vastly greater numbers than the ones we saw.

A far more accurate yardstick might be the numbers of people attending and taking part at Mass each and every Sunday in their usual parishes.

I had this in mind at Mass last evening. Looking across the congregation, there were so many pews where no-one was sitting – entire rows empty, not just spaces here and there. And in many other pews, gaps. And it wasn’t just last evening – it was the same again this morning; in fact, it was more evident today in comparison. My very ordinary parish would, I imagine, reflect much of what is happening in many other such places across the country. It wasn’t like this two years ago.

As I have noted previously, falling Mass attendance does not necessarily equate to a broad loss of faith.

While a loss of faith in a previously professed religion no doubt accounts for part of the falling numbers, it isn’t the full story – there is more besides. Some people, I understand, remain ‘spiritual’ – that often-used word which can become so vague and tenuous that it is almost impossible to accurately define – but the ways they express that sense of the spiritual does not seem to find a place in a Church (of any denomination), for whatever reason. Perhaps there is a greater reliance on a private practice of personal belief, rather than on the institutional edifices of religion – despite the Catholic faith making it clear that our religious faith has a very real communal sense.

For the Church, there is a very real consequence of this change we are all seeing. The ‘power base’ was attached to – and supported by – sheer numbers. So, as the numbers decline, that power dissipates. The same can be said of the financial base.

In my view, this is not necessarily a bad thing in one way. For far too long, the Church seems to have been more of a temporal power than a spiritual reality. You could be forgiven for thinking, at times, that it had “no King bur Caesar” – that it had forgotten the express words of the Lord that “my Kingdom is not of this world”. Perhaps this moment in history is our reminder.

Of course, this means things will change not only at the upper reaches of the pyramid, but also at ground level – they have already changed greatly, but there is undoubtedly much more to come. The lack of priests and the greater reliance on the laity is proof positive of this.

For all these reasons, it is a good thing that the Church is of a mind to listen, by means of the present preparations for the Synod next year. While none of this will result in changes to dogma, belief or theology – that was not really the point, even though some might have liked it to be. The point was to listen to the ‘people of God’, who often have a very keen sense of what is happening even if the bishops appear to have stopped their ears in large part. Those same bishops need to listen now, for the louder and more powerful voice at this moment would appear to be that of the laity; and there is a clear and increasing sense that much of what they are saying, they are saying with a unified voice. This might well prove to be one of those decisive moments when the Holy Spirit is – at least to some degree – making His voice heard, too.

In listening, people experienced new closeness to others;
in being listened to, many discovered they belonged.

Synodal Document (para.10), Catholic Bishops of England and Wales

I think the days of huge parishes with numerous Masses every weekend are over – there are neither the necessary priests, nor the equally necessary people for this. Perhaps we will see fewer and far smaller parishes, with a much-reduced number of participants.

We may even see a decline in the desire for those Sacraments of the Church which, some might argue (and not altogether without a basis), are perceived by many more as rites of social passage rather than actual Sacraments conferring actual grace. When parents spend more time thinking about the child’s dress and transport and party prior to First Communion, rather than preparing for the enormous spiritual gift that is about to be given to that child, then something has gone very badly wrong. Similarly, when a couple are married in Church and never come back to that Church afterwards, something has gone very badly wrong.

These are the days of the empty chairs.

This does signify a loss in one sense – but it is also an opportunity to renew and to bring forward something new and meaningful, something relevant and which speaks to souls in their hearts, guided always by the Holy Spirit.

It is a moment of listening – but maybe we should begin by listening to the echo.


A Catholic writer living in the United Kingdom

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