After reading the Bishop's letter at my Masses on Sunday, I commented to my congregations that "I wondered if a proper analysis of what had gone wrong had been done."
Of course, there were changes in the social mores of the 1960's and 70's, which affected church members almost as much as anyone else, but I want to concentrate on the changes in the Church itself.
As I said in my last post, I consider 1970 to be the pivotal year of change, give or take a couple of years.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Church was in an excitable state. In 1967 or 1968 we were given permission to turn our altars around and celebrate Mass in English. It may have been noted that altars facing the congregation only applied to new churches, but that didn't matter - we all did it. All manner of temporary altars were constructed, and, if I remember rightly, there was at first no official translation of the Mass which we should use. I remember that Goodliffe Neale brought out a loose leaf version of the Missal to which new sections were added at intervals. By 1970 Rome brought out an official Roman Missal which we started to use, and which was promptly withdrawn after a couple of years because the GIRM, the General Instruction at the front of the Missal, was heretical (I think someone has missed out the sacrificial aspect of the Mass altogether). A new Missal was produced, which has been in use until very recently.
But by then a new and radical understanding of the Mass was taking root - it is a celebratory meal in which we take pleasure in each others company while communicating with Jesus - the congregation is an audience. I have to admit that I bought into this idea, at least in part - we had to energise the audien - sorry - congregation into singing and responding to the celebrant and shaking hands, and generally behaving in ways that the congregation had never done before.
One question which I was constantly being asked by parishioners in those days was, "We were brought up to believe that the Mass was unchangeable and could never be changed; why is it changing? And if the Mass can be changed, what about the rest of the Faith?" Good questions, and the answer is not so simple!
Soon it became acceptable to receive Holy Communion standing because forward-altars had removed altar-rails. And then we began to hear that some places were giving Communion in the hand in disobedience to the general rules for receiving Holy Communion. Eventually, our Bishops petitioned Rome to allow us to continue with this new way because it was by now so entrenched that they would not be able to stop it. I feel sure that many Catholics stopped attending Mass because of some despair and disillusionment at the way things were going in the Church.
And the result of all this turmoil can be seen in our diocesan statistics for practising Catholics. From 1970 until the present day, an average of 2000 souls a year has ceased to practice the Faith by attending regular Sunday Mass. In 1970 42% of the Catholic population attended Sunday Mass, by 1986 that had dropped to 34%, and by 2009 the percentage was just over 20%. In 1970, the actual recorded number of Mass-going Catholics in our diocese was 119,115; by 2010 (the latest figures) the number was down to 38,485.
I remember reading a slim booklet by Father Schillebeeckx , a Dutch theologian, who was looking forward to a smaller Church because it would be much more devoted and dynamic. We now have a smaller Church, but more devoted and dynamic? Or are we just managing the decline? What do you think?