Those Empty Pews: Thoughts on Mass Attendance

“Once we have grasped what the Mass is, there is an exhilaration in thinking about it.”

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We know ourselves to be bound by the command the Lord gave on the eve of his Passion: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’” (CCC 1356).

 

Take another look at the worship scene above. How does it make you feel?

You might recognize it as a still shot from Paul Schrader’s critically acclaimed film, First Reformed (2017). Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, a depressed, disillusioned, and debilitated minister who is struggling to find equilibrium as he pastors an historic tourist-attraction church. The critics are right: There are strong performances in this film, including Hawke’s, and it raises all kinds of important questions. Yet, its narrative arc veers off in bewildering directions, and its ending was disappointedly blunt.

Probably I should’ve been more attentive to the foreboding cues Schrader embedded in the movie from the beginning – the bleak northeastern setting; the stretches of silence; the subtle glances here, speech patterns there, and revelatory postures and gestures throughout – but I’m not that clever. What’s more, I suspect the filmmaker might’ve put too much stock in the suggestive power of Toller’s skimpy Sunday congregations – even when contrasted with a burgeoning megachurch across town. Maybe Schrader thought that lots of empty pews would automatically evoke distress in the audience. Maybe he assumed that the sparse assemblies would elicit our empathy for Toller’s despair and that we’d be primed for the pastor’s desperate attempts at redemption.

Well, it depends.

For those whose worship services revolve around sermon and song, a low turnout week after week can be a bad sign – even an ominous one. But for Catholics, sparsely populated pews can be a sign of something else.

Try this thought experiment: Take a look at that First Reformed still shot once more, and then try to imagine it with Ethan Hawke replaced by your favorite priest. Maybe picture him at the altar, holding up the Host. There’s a large crucifix behind him. A statue of Our Lady adorns the wall to the left. And the number of congregants stays the same.

Any distress? Any hint at despair or disillusionment? Naah, not at all. In fact, I’d warrant it’s a scene you come upon routinely, at least if you frequent daily Mass. Moreover, I’m guessing you might even relish that kind of intimate liturgical gathering – just you, the priest and a handful of “regulars” that you know by sight, if not by name. Even on Sundays, a tiny Mass congregation amid lots of empty pews is less a sign of ecclesial demise than an indicator of determined faith and fidelity.

Sure, we might grouse if a bishop decides to shut down such an underpopulated parish or merge it with another one, but it’s not the end of the world. Demographic shifts, not to mention church shopping (a relatively recent phenomenon), can lead to all kinds of attendance imbalances from week to week. They rarely indicate a downturn in religious market share because practicing Catholics – even intermittently practicing ones – primarily come to church for the Mass, not the priest or the programming. The preaching and music might be awful; there might be little (if any) fellowship; adult instruction outside of Mass might be wholly absent: but none of that will keep us from showing up because we want – we need – the Mass itself.

That’s not to say that those other things are irrelevant – far from it! Reinvigorating the Church in these tumultuous times will certainly require solid preaching, authentic community and sound catechetical formation. Beautiful music and beautiful liturgy are vital as well. But it’s the showing up that’s paramount. The “continuing priesthood of Christ breaks through to our altars at every Mass,” writes Frank Sheed, and his perfect sacrifice of self on Calvary is made present for the world in the Eucharist. “It is beyond compare the most important work Christ does through his Church: and it our privilege to join the priest and so join Christ himself in the offering he is making in heaven.”

So, full pews? Empty pews? Granted, numbers aren’t totally irrelevant. Think of them as a barometer of our efforts to bring others to Christ and his Church, to educate them about the Faith, and to persuade them that participating in Mass is not just obligatory, but an astonishing prerogative. But in the moment, as we sit in church and attend to what’s happening on the altar, numbers don’t matter at all, because each distinct celebration of the Mass is a part of the eternal liturgy which is perpetually packed. “We always offer the same Lamb,” writes St. John Chrysostom, “not one today and another tomorrow, but always the same one” (EE 12) – yes, the same one that Christians have been offering constantly and everywhere for 2,000 years. Thus, there’s really no such thing as a sparse Mass congregation. Every liturgy is a massive, universal and timeless event.

“Once we have grasped what the Mass is,” says Sheed, “there is an exhilaration in thinking about it.” What’s more, there’s an associated impetus to participate whenever we can – Sundays, weekdays, every day if possible. There’s no better way to change the world – and ourselves.