Andrew Hamilton SJ
In 1954, about 80 per cent of Catholics attended Sunday Mass regularly. They included most young people. Now fewer than 20 per cent do, and numbers are still declining. In many congregations there are few young people. So young Catholics who go to parish Mass are in a minority. They stand out among their peers.
The decline has also affected other Christian churches. At the same time, the Australian Sunday has changed. It has become secularised. Back then, very few people worked on Sunday. There were no football matches, no television, few Sunday papers, no films. Only the local milk bars opened. It was harder to visit friends, because fewer people had cars and there was little public transport.
Churches were then one of the few places where people could meet on Sundays. Churches sponsored creches, tennis clubs, and organised dances and picnics. People went to church to pray, but also to meet.
Compare that with today. Many people work on Sundays. For others, Sunday is the only day they can sleep in and do the shopping. Going to church competes with football, movies, television, computer games, school activities, and family outings.
In 1954, too, community was easier to find. People were joiners. They liked to do things with others, and joined community groups. Now community groups struggle for members. This reflects a more individualist society. People have more choices, and emphasise their individual right to choose for themselves. They still look for connection, but on their own terms, and not in established groups.
Today those who attend Sunday Mass regularly stand out from the majority of Australians, including their fellow Catholics. They make a decision to go to Mass, choosing it over many other attractive things they could be doing.
For the early Christians, meeting on Sunday was revolutionary. As Jews, they had met on the Sabbath, when work was forbidden. But now they chose the first day of the week as the time to gather for prayer and to say thank you to God in the Eucharist.
For them Sunday was still an ordinary working day. Their preachers urged them to join the community prayers, and not to be distracted by work. Not that the Christian Sunday left much time over for work. By the third century, they began the day with a dawn service. This was followed by a three-hour Eucharist, and they met again for evening prayer.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine became Christian, he made Sunday a holiday. Later kings passed laws to compel people to attend the Eucharist and to forbid them from working on Sundays. Christian writers began to describe Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. In medieval churches, windows even portrayed Saint Sunday – an image of Christ being put to death with the hammers and hoes used by people who worked on Sunday.
By the Middle Ages, Sunday was seen as a day of obligation. Catholics kept Sunday holy by attending Mass and refraining from servile work.
The Australian Sunday of 1954 still reflected its Christian beginnings. Its restrictions made it easy for people to attend church. But now we have returned to the world of the early Church. Practising Christians are again in a minority. They are distinctive in their faith and in the ways in which they spend their Sundays.
Like the early Christians, too, our deepest question is not whether to go to church. It is whether to belong to the Church at all. We need first to have reasons for being Catholic. Only then do we ask about going to church.
In the early Church, to be a Christian was a hard choice. Your family could disown you. The Roman authorities could torture and kill you. When you took part in the Eucharist you celebrated Jesus’ rising from the dead.
This gave you hope when you yourself faced death. You believed that after he rose from the dead, Christ was present with you in the Church. He had offered his own life to God his Father, and been faithful to his call though it led to torture and death. At Mass, you joined him in his offering. When you received the Eucharist, you received Christ within you as your food. By being so closely linked to Christ, you were also brothers and sisters of the other members of the Church.
St Paul described vividly the connection between the Eucharist and the church community. He described both as the body of Christ. At the Eucharist he said that people received the body of Christ. As they received Christ’s body in the Eucharist, Christ tied them together in his body, the Church community.
Paul also said that in the Eucharist, you drank Christ’s blood. As you joined Christ as he gave himself to death, you were in touch with the pain of the world. You became very aware of the body’s injured members: the martyrs, the sick and the poor. Taking part in the Mass encouraged you to live generously, and to befriend the lonely.
In this world people did not attend Mass just because they were told they had to. Being a member of the Christian community and taking part in the Eucharist went together. On Sundays people lived out their faith as a community.
Our world today is like the world of the early Christians. To live out your faith makes you special. Because the individualism and busyness of our world make it difficult to follow Jesus, we need the company and the support of other people.
The favourite images in today’s media are of beautiful, busy and rich people who live for themselves. To take God seriously in this world we need to take time out, when we can think about our lives, and to listen to God’s word.
The Mass is a time for prayer and listening. It is a time to say thank you together for God’s gifts. In a world where it seems natural to be self-preoccupied and busy, to make Sunday a free day when we spend time together in prayer offers a space for being in touch with the deep places of our lives.
Our society rewards winners and grinners. When we do think deeply about our lives and our world, we touch on much pain and loss. At Mass, Christ invites us to join him on his journey, as we touch this suffering in our own lives and in our world. He went to his death offering himself to God.
When we go with him beneath the surface of our lives, too, we become more aware of people who our world makes poor. Our world can be a lonely and uncaring place where people do not look out for one another. At Mass, we remember Christ’s wounded brothers and sisters who are also part of his body. We also meet generous people with big hearts, and the church can offer us opportunities to make a difference.
News stories often suggest it is more important to look good rather than to be good. It is easy to become hypocritical. Because in the Mass we are with Christ on his journey to death, we are encouraged to ask how we can put our hands and feet where our mouths are.
We are usually more drawn to attend Mass if we find a welcome in the community. We feel welcomed when people listen to us, and help us see where God is drawing our hearts. Many of the young people who take part in the Eucharist first found themselves welcomed in Antioch, the Disciples of Jesus, and other youth groups.
We are also encouraged to go to Mass if the Church community is concerned with Christ’s wounded brothers and sisters: the poor, asylum seekers and unemployed within our community. Nothing is more attractive than people who are fair dinkum about living their faith.
Of course, there is more to the Church and to the Eucharist than friendship, hospitality, open conversation and a passion to make the world more just. But when you find these things, it becomes much easier to follow Jesus’ way within the Church community.