by Fr Michael Mahoney SM
The South Westland parish includes five towns, from Harihari to Haast. Each weekend there is Mass in four of the five towns. In four of them there are almost no young people present. In the fifth, most of the congregation are under the age of 25. This fifth town is Franz Josef, where there are lots of tourists. Many of the Catholic ones come to Mass. We ask ourselves why Mass attendance has fallen off so drastically in the past 30 years. There is no one reason. There are many contributing factors.
Sunday used to be a rest day or family day. Shops were shut. Now many people have to work 24/7, including many Sundays, so the habit of coming to Mass has died. In former times people believed it was a grave sin to not attend Sunday Mass. People no longer believe that. What had appeared to be immutable laws were shown to be changeable. For example, the general prohibition of eating meat on a Friday. To many Catholics, changes such as this were disconcerting.
The paedophile scandal did huge damage to many young people and families. It also seriously damaged Church credibility and its self-image. Instead of being proud to be a Catholic, people became ashamed. Instead of speaking out on social issues, the Church in New Zealand became silent. When it did speak out, too often people retorted that it had lost its credibility to speak out on moral issues.
All this has had a profound effect. The habit of Sunday Mass has been lost by Catholics in many New Zealand towns. In the big cities this is to some extent masked, but in rural New Zealand it is starkly evident. New Zealand-born youth are absent. Not only this, but, as a consequence, there are few vocations to the priesthood or religious life.
What can be done to reverse this trend? Young people are as generous and altruistic as ever — witness the volunteers to any good cause. What has changed is that the Catholic Church no longer has as a major focus helping those who need help. When solutions to New Zealand’s problems, such as lack of housing, are sought, reporters no longer go to the Catholic Church. Our social outreach has diminished in fact and in public perception.
The religious sisters who in their hundreds worked day and night for the poor are gone. Orphanages, homes for the poor, armies of sisters who kept a tab on families, helped wives distraught because of their husband’s drinking or violence — are gone. Caritas does important work, but is not locally/parish-based. Challenge 2000’s focus is youth, but it is largely unknown. Its funding is enough for only a few. Have you ever heard of it? The simple truth is that when young people look at the Catholic Church, they do not see an institution they feel drawn to be part of. It does not seem to have a primary focus on screaming–out needs that everyone can see in their suburbs or towns. Young people who want to do something for others join a body like Médecins Sans Frontières. With no fanfare, it lives Pope Francis’s exhortation to be people of mercy.
We in the Church have become entangled and strangled in bureaucracy. The endless laws about buildings. The endless compliance. Large numbers of people to administer it, all of whom have to be paid good salaries. Our core mission has been choked. It’s hard to be a volunteer for the sake of the Gospel. Everyone is paid for everything they do. Where is the Gospel in all this? What is interesting and challenging in what we do? What do we do for suffering New Zealand that would inspire young people to leap to join us? What could we do, as a Church, to get back on the radar as a worthwhile public institution?
If we look round New Zealand, there are plenty of challenges. One of them is the whole question of young people in prison. Our reoffending rate is abysmal. When young people come out of prison, many return to their former haunts. Of course they do — most have no other real option.
Care for young offenders
Perhaps the Church could spearhead a comprehensive programme for young offenders. In conjunction with the judiciary and Police, put together the nuts and bolts of something with permanent effects.
An important element in it would be professional training while in prison. Young people who wanted to could leave prison with a recognised qualification — plumber, electrician, technician, health worker — you name it. They would be released on parole 18 months before their sentence was up, to live in a town far from where they had offended. They would have a job and salary in line with their qualification. They would live in a designated house that might have two others like them, but further along the parole track. One who already had almost 18 months in this situation and would soon return to a normal life. Another, who had been there for about half of that. They would have to stay there for the 18 months. If they broke parole it would be back to prison.
The initiative would be a Church one, mentored by young Catholics living in a nearby house. Already qualified and working, they would receive training to look after the ones on parole. This would be their contribution to the Catholic mission. Active participation in the local parish would be part of the commitment.
The above is one example of how we could get involved in a real and serious social need. It might not be a good one. But if we’re to turn around the steady exodus from the Church, we have to take drastic measures. And it’s the sort of thing Catholics do. Because of their faith.
Each country has its weaknesses. Each Church also. At the moment, our Church is seldom quoted on TV when big social issues are raised. It is the City Mission or the Salvation Army who are considered the experts. Yet we have a wealth of experience — 150 years ago it was people like Mary MacKillop who did this sort of thing. She and her helpers were only in their 20s, but were running serious social projects — in the name of the Church!
Can we see that we’re not attractive because so much of what we do is for ourselves? So much of our income is spent on maintenance and administration. We might see ourselves as having a profound spirituality, but outsiders don’t. And you don’t have to belong to a church to find spirituality. Until we answer what are perceived as real needs, things are not going to change. The young people are out there. It’s we who have to change. Drastically.
Fr Michael Mahoney, SM, is parish priest of Our Lady of the Woods, in South Westland.