Sunday 13 March 2011

To Be .... or Not To Be

I've been wondering: what would we in this diocese have to do to get all our Catholics back to Church and practising their faith?  I have just been reading of a new initiative which Bishop Seamus, our Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle Diocese, is sponsoring - it is to have a Welcome Back Sunday on Pentecost Sunday when we will invite all those who have stopped attending Mass to come back and be re-energised by the faith.
The problem is this: the estimated number of Catholics in the diocese is 173,307, but the number who actually go to Mass each Sunday averages out at 39,216, only 22.5% of the total, a number which has been declining by about two thousand souls for each of the last forty years. A lot of our English dioceses have the same problem, and some, I gather, even worse. How depressing and perhaps terminal.

BUT all is not lost. I came across some statistics for the diocese of Lincoln in Nebraska, in the United States of America. The diocese of Lincoln has fewer Catholics than our diocese, only about 95,000 in 138 parishes. In that diocese the Bishop of the diocese, Bishop Bruskewitz, has laid down one important rule, which is:

Priests of the Diocese of Lincoln must faithfully follow the rubrics and words of the Roman Missal and liturgical creativity is not tolerated.

That's all - nothing fancy - just orthodoxy in the celebration of Holy Mass. I wouldn't be surprised if orthodoxy in the teaching of the Faith went alongside that.
As a result of this diocesan policy, the diocese currently has 148 diocesan priests, of whom 123 are active in the diocese, 7 active outside the diocese, and 18 retired.  There are currently 41 seminarians in the diocesan seminary. (The diocese of Hexham & Newcastle has 176 priests, of whom 54 are retired and many more on the cusp of retirement, and half a dozen seminarians).

But the really astonishing result of the diocesan policy is the effect it has had on Mass attendance.
The average Sunday Mass attendance in the Diocese of Lincoln is 60%.  Which means that something over 54,000 attend Mass each Sunday.  As a friend said to me .... WOW!

Welcome Back Sunday? Good idea, perhaps, but even better: Just demand that all priests follow the rubrics and words of the Roman Missal without any personal liturgical creativity.

(I wonder if the reader from Lincoln, Nebraska, who visited my blog a few days ago, and whom I hope will return, would like to comment from his personal experience about what I have written.)


  1. Visiting from Tennessee, USA. One thing that was amazing to me was how crowded Ash Wednesday Mass was last Wednesday. It was almost as crowded at Easter Sunday or Midnight Mass. This morning, however, there were many empty seats.

  2. Leadership - Not Gimmicks14 March 2011 at 14:40

    For years we have been subjected in this diocese to various initiatives to reinvigorate parish life and get people back to church. I remember Bishop Ambrose produced his VISION which was lauded as the answer. What happened? It bombed. The problem just got worse and worse. There is absolutely no point in launching new initiatives until the problem is identified. Sadly, the powers that be do not want to admit what the real problem is because it will expose that the policies which have been pushed upon the laity (and priests) over the past 40 years have been the dominant cause of the falling Mass attendances. This latest initiative is also destined to fail, as the others have done, because the root cause is not being addressed. The faith is not being taught in the schools, and the emphasisis on creativity in the liturgy at first drives people to leave their own parishes in search of other parishes where it is more palatable, and then finally leads to abandonment of the faith when people just get fed up with scouring the diocese for something recognisable as Catholic liturgy. I speak from experience and know of many others of like mind.
    Bishop Bruskewitz has obviously realised that if the priests are not allowed to be 'creative' then all parishes will be offering the same liturgy and thus no one will feel the need to drive around the countryside looking for something better. This produces solidarity in each parish, and parish life will flourish - as appears so in Lincoln. There would be no more comments that Father X's Mass is better/worse than Father Y's. It would also be hugely beneficial for the priests themselves. Those priests who are 'creative' can find themselves unpopular when they are moved to a more conservative-minded parish, and the opposite applies - the more conservative priests are not popular when they are moved to a 'trendy' parish and try to restore some kind of orthodoxy. Comparisons are being made all the time and when priest moves are announced in the Northern Cross anxious laity scan the names to see who they are going to get, depending on their liturgical point of view.
    Bishop Cunningham would save himself a great deal of energy and anguish if he simply calls all his priests together and tells them to stick to the missal and preach the faith. Then he calls all the school heads together and says all RE books must conform to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He then does his duty and makes sure it happens. After a few grumbles and tears everything will sort itself out naturally. Isn't it so simple?