05 December 2020
2004 Weekend Masses in Tulamore, patterns in attendance's

Weekend Masses in Tullamore, patterns in attendance's

Last month I touched on the opportunities in parishes for a seasonal or occasional approach to popular adult faith formation, complementary to on-going small-group based methods.

Here I want to raise a question about the regular weekend masses.  It is clear enough I think that in very many parishes we can and do avail of special or seasonal moments to provide liturgy experiences that connect well with large numbers of people. Our difficulty is doing this week-in and week-out. 

We were used to a situation where it didn't matter what was done or not done at Sunday mass -  people still came.  Nor did it matter what else was happening in their lives.  Mass attendance had such a priority that everything else was organised around it. While this situation still holds true today for most of the older half of the population, there has been a massive shift among the majority of the younger half. For them church related activities occupy a position somewhere at the margins of their consciousness. This is not a rigidly fixed position. Church can and does move occasionally from the margins towards the centre depending on what's happening in their lives. But the point is that participation in church activities increasingly depends more on the circumstances of their lives than on what is going on in the church. 

What we have to respond to then is not simply a change from regular practice to non-practice, but to circumstantial practice. For some circumstantial practice means that they will continue to go to mass normally, unless there is something else on that particular weekend. For example, our mass attendance on the weekend of the last World Cup final fell by over 15%! (I think this pattern may account at least for some of the disparity between the national statistics on mass attendance and the actual numbers present in any parish on a given weekend). For others circumstantial practice means that they will not normally attend liturgy unless it is connecting with something else that is going on in their lives.

Most of us in ministry are of course not very happy with the fact that what we do is increasingly marginal. We are not comfortable with the notion of having to compete for people's attention with many other events and influences that often seem to be more central for them.  We believe that the weekend mass should be a priority, and that we shouldn't have to go to any extra lengths to get people to come. Yet we see clearly that this is no longer the case, and we are left with the question of what do we do.

My own sense is that the circumstantial pattern of attendance offers us a clue as to how to respond. People are sensitive to and responsive to liturgy that connects with their lives. They feel free not to attend liturgy that they experience as unconnected to them. One of the ways that parishes have sought to explore this possible avenue is through developing particular liturgy styles that seek to resonate more with particular groups. This variety in mass style is more possible of course in urban situations where there are a number of masses in the parish. So we have children's masses, youth masses, gospel masses, candlelight masses, Irish masses, Latin masses and so on.

I believe that these efforts are important and that we should monitor their impact over a period. In our own parish over the last year we have drawn on this approach to develop a variety of mass styles for the regular Sundays.  * This includes a candlelight mass at 8.30pm, a children's mass at 10.00am and a 'gospel' mass on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month at 1.00pm. We have been doing a number of mass counts to monitor what impact they are having on attendance.  We would need to do this over a few years before we could draw any firm conclusions, and I offer these figures now with hesitation.  The gospel mass is the one that has made the biggest impact so far. It has been going now every second Sunday since Easter. The choir itself has attracted some 130 members, mainly people in their 20s and 30s. Attendances at the 1.00pm masses have been up by 25% and more on regular Sundays, and on special occasions (Christmas and Easter) there has hardly been standing room in the church.  The candlelight mass (electric lights reduced to a minimum, quiet music) showed an increase of about 10%-20%during its first year. In the second year we moved the time back by 15 minutes from 8.15pm to 8.30pm and the numbers dropped substantially.  They have picked up again since Christmas. We should have a clearer picture by summer. To date attendance at the weekly family mass has been stable, with no increase or decrease over two years.   There is a strong and very committed family mass committee. Participation by children has grown substantially, and on special occasions attendances increase by over 100%.

I'd love to hear stories from other parishes on their efforts with the regular Sunday masses.

* More details on the mass styles are available on our website www.tullamoreparish.ie. Also available there are notes from Michael Warren's inputs at our 'Bringing liturgy to life' gathering.

P.S.   Over the last few weeks I have received a good deal of thoughtful and strongly critical comment on my December piece.  I hope to respond to this in the coming issue.