“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Many parishes in the Diocese of Brooklyn and around the globe have noticed that attendance at Sunday Mass is significantly lower than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. At Holy Child Jesus Church, Richmond Hill, where I currently serve as administrator, our Sunday congregation has dropped from an average of 1,400 people to 450.
Even before the pandemic, I have been concerned about the number of people that come to Sunday Mass. Even 1,400 people is a small fraction of the number of baptized Catholics that live in my parish boundaries. Before the pandemic, I used to ask myself: “If a teenager were to come into church this Sunday and see so few people (and even fewer people his age), would he want to come back?”
After all, a fuller church tends to be a more energetic church. A large, vibrant, and prayerful congregation tends to lift the spirits of those in attendance. It can also have a dramatic effect upon those who visit our parishes.
People naturally want to be a part of something that is dynamic and growing. A vibrant parish is much better equipped to evangelize, to invite others to participate in the life of the Church and to grow in faith, hope, and charity.
Nevertheless, today’s Gospel reminds us that Christ is present even when only two or three are gathered together in His name. Earlier in this chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus admonishes His disciples to “become like children.” It is characteristic of children to be trusting and free from anxiety. We priests are often anxious about our parishes. We too must learn childlike trust in God’s providence.
There have been various theories about why Mass attendance numbers are so low at the moment. The safety measures that we have implemented in our churches (masks, hand sanitizers, new procedures, and so forth) can be wearying. Some people are simply afraid to leave their homes. Some are happy not to attend since their obligation remains dispensed.
I sense also that some people have not returned because they are disappointed in or even angry about the Church’s response, or perceived response, to the pandemic.
When our parishes closed the doors of our churches, many felt abandoned. Some felt that priests were more concerned with their own wellbeing than with serving the people entrusted to their care. Of course, those who made these decisions acted in good faith to preserve the health and safety of all.
Let us not forget that, in the midst of all of this, the evil one is working hard to keep people away from Christ, away from the Church, away from the Holy Eucharist. He wants us to be fearful and divided. The First Letter of St. Peter reminds us: “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
The answer to all of our difficulties and all of our worries is prayer and self-denial.
Let us especially pray for all of those whose disappointment at the leaders of the Church is preventing them from attending Sunday Mass. For it is at Sunday Mass, when two or three, 400 or 1,400 followers of Jesus gather in His name, thank Him, adore Him, and receive Him in Holy Communion.
Readings for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
2 Corinthians 5:19
Father Heanue is the administrator of Holy Child Jesus Church and manages the pastoral care of St Benedict Joseph Labre Church, both located in Richmond Hill.