June is often the month that is associated with graduations. Families experience moments of transition. Grammar school students make their way to high school and high school students are off to college, some leaving home for the first time. A college graduation is marked as the moment young men and women establish themselves seeking careers in our society. Needless to say, this is a significant time in the life of families and presents an opportunity to emphasize our Catholic values and the importance of practicing the faith.
I have been a priest/bishop for more than 46 years. Often when sitting in a confessional after a person has declared their sins, I would offer the individual a moment to discuss anything that might be troubling them. Parents and grandparents would share with me their disappointment and hurt that their children or grandchildren are not practicing the faith. They look for answers as to why. They sent their children to Catholic schools; they attended Mass faithfully every Sunday; they seemed to do everything necessary. They are dumfounded as to why their children do not practice the faith. They look for answers because they realize that the faith is so essential to their lives. The faith creates a vision of our world that calls for us to integrate Jesus into every facet of life. They wonder why their children do not share their understanding.
I try to remind them of the fact that they did witness the faith and whether consciously or unconsciously a statement was being made to their children. We may never know when these children will reflect on their parents’ examples, but it will always be there as a source of direction. I encouraged them not to give up. They must continue their process of evangelization and to share the stories of God’s presence with their children and how the hand of God has directed them during times of challenge, joy or sorrow, confident that God walks with them. Remember our Lord Jesus said in St. Luke’s Gospel (14:27), “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” This might be a cross which today’s parents and grandparents must bear.
I sympathize with their difficulty. As a priest some 40 years ago, I would enter the Church in preparation for a Sunday Mass. Looking over the congregation for whom I would be celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, I would see many grey-haired individuals but only a few young people. I thought to myself, “Who will occupy these pews in the next generation?” Every study that I have viewed since becoming a priest has indicated the decline in Mass attendance. Even before the pandemic, studies indicated that only 25 to 30 percent of those claiming to be Catholics attended Mass on a Sunday. At the beginning of the pandemic, church doors were closed and pews were totally empty. We worried about attendance before the pandemic; however, now, after we begin to emerge from the pandemic, our priests, deacons and lay staff wonder whether we will still maintain even the 25 percent attendance.
There are many factors over the years which have contributed to this lack of participation on the part of the Catholic community in Sunday worship. Since the early 1960s, there has been an increasing distrust of traditional institutions — the family being one and, of course, the Catholic Church as the most traditional of institutions in our society. The Catholic Church during the 1970s and 1980s seemed to lose its reliance on a formal Catechism. The Church itself did no service to the education of the faithful when religion teachers in Catholic high schools and religious ed started to downplay the importance of Sunday Obligation, teaching their students that they could choose to commune with God on their own without the communal celebration of Sunday at the Mass. It would not be until the pontificate of St. John Paul (1992) that the Church would once again incorporate the Catechism into its formation. “The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life. Sunday is the day on which the Paschal Mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.” (2177)
The loss of the sense of “sin” in the lives of the faithful was also a contributing factor in the loss of our obligation before God. It should be no surprise to anyone that the late John Paul II boldly stated that the renewal of the Church would come through two sacraments: the sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. Reconciliation assists us in understanding our responsibilities to God and neighbor. When anyone declares to me that they do not go to confession because they really do not sin, I know immediately that they have done little to examine if they are conforming their life to Christ.
What can we do to stem the tide of separation from God that we experience in our society? We should always begin by strengthening our personal relationship with Christ and His Church. 1) Attending Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligations, frequent participation in Reconciliation and a greater appreciation of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. 2) Make prayer a daily habit, seek understanding of the Church’s teachings by reading the Catholic Catechism, examine the lives of the saints for inspiration and develop a devotion to the Blessed Mother. 3) Share your story of faith with your family and friends; your consistency will develop a sense of confidence directing them to the source that empowers your life.
I would offer one more suggestion to those who worry about their children or grandchildren. At the end of one’s life, one usually creates a will that disposes of their worldly possessions. Write a letter bequeathing your hope for them to embrace a life of faith; tell them of the times you have held them in prayer, how God has supported you throughout your life and your desire to be with them in heaven after they have lived a faith filled life here on earth. Make copies of the letter and present it to them at every significant moment of their lives. They may ignore it, perhaps discard it, but they cannot deny the love for God that generated it.