In a statistical analysis of mass attendance by CARA, one of the major findings was that the percentage of U.S. self-identifying Catholics who attend mass weekly has steadily declined since 1950, and now stands at 23%. Unsurprisingly, the number jumps to 68% on Easter Sunday. Parish priests get a captive audience and an opportunity to encourage lapsed Catholics back to the faith.
If it were me I would do three things this year:
- Encourage parishioners to park at a distance if possible, or attend a mass that is not likely to have visitors. People tend to avoid going back to places where parking is a problem.
- Have one or more confessionals open prior to mass and, if another priest is around, during mass. Visiting Catholics might feel the call to reconciliation just by seeing that it’s available.
- Preach a homily on Hell. It doesn’t have to be in the fire and brimstone style of Jonathan Edwards, though it worked for him, and started a movement, “The Great Awakening”:
“The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hath opened her Mouth under them.”
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (ca. 1741)
The fiery puritan grew tired of the malaise he noticed at his colonial-era church and community. People went through the motions of the religious life but lacked passion, which for Edwards meant an absence of an appreciation of the reality of God, heaven, and hell. He wanted evidence that a person was a true Christian through a visible “religious affection”. The malaise, however, was the unavoidable by-product of Calvinism, in which salvation or damnation was predetermined for everyone.
It has been claimed that certain readings and prayers addressing eternal damnation were purged in the mass of Pope Paul VI. Theologian Brian Harrison, O.S. examined this question in detail and concluded that there was little substantial difference between the old and new masses with respect to such matters. He added, however, that the true disparity comes from the pulpit:
“…Catholics attending the old rite heard – and still hear – a lot more about sin, judgment, wrath and Hell than their ‘Novus Ordo’ brethren, simply because post-conciliar priests, whatever the readings of the day may be, tend to avoid those topics like the plague in their bland, vacuous, and politically correct homilies.” (link)
A hundred years ago God Himself sent a Edwards-like warning to Catholics through the three young seers from Fatima, reminding us that Hell is real. Sister Lucia describes their frightful vision:
“…[W]e saw, as it were, a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls [of the damned]. The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves, together with great clouds of smoke. Now they fell back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fright. …The demons were distinguished by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals.”
Catholics questioning the existence of hell would do well to heed Edwards’ warning:
“However unconvinced you may now be of the Truth of what you hear, by & by you will be fully convinced of it.”