All Those Empty Seats

I was in Ireland recently for a few days and went to Sunday morning mass in the local parish where I was staying. Much as in Britain, there were rows of empty seats, with most of the people attending staying towards the back of the church. I remembered how different this lack of a full congregation was when I was young back in the sixties and seventies. In those days in Ireland, churches were packed and there were usually more masses than nowadays to cope with the numbers. How things have changed. In Ireland!

But then, the parish in London where I grew up was also packed out in those far off days. In fact, I belonged to what was possibly the largest parish by Catholic population in Britain: Sacred Heart in Kilburn, which was admittedly the centre of the Irish community in London. Between the main church, referred to by location as Quex Road, and the smaller second church, referred to as Percy Road, both had between them about thirty masses on a Sunday, and were served by twelve priests! Most of these masses were packed out apart from the very early masses starting at 6.30am. Of course in those days there were no Saturday evening vigil masses of Sunday, but the recorded Sunday mass attendance at Quex Road was approx 10,000. So much so that even with the use of a purchased old Methodist hall, the main church was enlarged to seat about 1,100.

And today? Acres of empty pews, and far less masses, not to mention far less priests. While the numbers were huge, I suspect that many folk really wished they weren’t there, but felt they had to go, possibly out of fear of hell and certainly fear of what the neighbours might say. Many people may have been in church physically, but mentally and spiritually elsewhere. I therefore think we would be wrong to regard the sixties and seventies and preceding decades as halcyon days for the Church. Numbers, yes, but quality of peoples’ faith – that’s another matter.

Most Catholic parishes in the so called developed world have seen drastic falls in attendance. This can be attributed to a number of reasons, particularly the change in societal pressure to go to church – even in Ireland – and also the awful clerical abuse scandals and the Church’s woeful response. These factors have allowed huge numbers of Catholics to stop going to church – basically giving their consciences permission for them to do what they always really wanted to do.

Now I don’t subscribe to the belief that ticking off Sunday masses is any guarantee of a healthy faith. It’s perfectly possible to attend church and not be particularly loving, or even close to God. Why then is it a shame that what is referred to as “practising the faith” has dropped off to such a vast degree? And by the way this drop in numbers attending is reflected in many other Christian churches.

Imagine having a party with a couple of others in a huge ballroom. Just the three or four of you, surrounded by empty space. I don’t think you would easily have the party spirit. It’s somewhat like that with church services. In a packed church it’s amazing how emotion and celebration can take off. The fact is that we support one another in church. And the opposite is also true: it is hard to celebrate as a community when so many are missing. It’s particularly hard for the older generation when they see few if any younger folk at mass.

One thing is clear. Now that there is little societal pressure to go church, it follows that those who do go are there usually because they want to be. I suspect that there are relatively few folk now in church who really would rather be elsewhere!

If you are a Catholic, or a Christian, who no longer attends the church of your upbringing, there may sometimes be valid reasons why you don’t feel you can attend. But perhaps you need to make the effort to find a local church or parish that you feel welcome in? If I may speak for God – He wants you there. Not only for your own spiritual nourishment, but to support your sisters and brothers. And in the last analysis, I only have the faith today because my parents, ancestors, and the local Catholic community practised their faith. One generation’s absence, usually means the next generation are bereft of any spiritual input. And most folk in Britain today are living without any real awareness of God’s love.

The key question for each one of us is simply: what is it that God wants us to do? Not much else really matters in the long run.