I was not surprised when I read what was surely meant to be a shocking statistic in Matthew J. Christoff's recent article over at Catholic World Report: nearly 9 out of 10 Catholic men don't participate actively in the Church. Why was I not surprised? Because I used to be one of those 9.
The article begins with a slew of appalling statistics:
Since 2000, 14 million Catholics have left the faith, parish religious education participation of children has dropped by 24%, Catholic school attendance has dropped by 19%, baptisms of infants has dropped by 28%, baptism of adults has dropped by 31% and sacramental Catholic marriages have dropped by 41%. Something is desperately wrong with the Church's approach to the New Evangelization.
I'll say. And Mr. Christoff identifies - correctly, in my opinion - one of the key symptoms of this failure: Catholic men have gone AWOL:
Only about 1/3 of Catholic men are attending Mass on a weekly basis. Only 1 in 50 Catholic men have a monthly practice of Confession, underscoring the fact that many are attending Mass without a proper preparation to receive the Eucharist. 48% of Catholic men are "bored" in the Mass and 55% of Catholic men don't feel they "get anything out of the Mass."
What is needed, Mr. Christoff writes, is "a mass conversion of men." It's quite appropriate that he specifically mentions the etymology of the word "conversion," coming as it does from the Latin convertere, meaning to "turn around." It's also appropriate that he makes frequent use of the key-word "lead," e.g. "men need to be challenged to fulfill their duty to lead their wives and children to Christ in the Mass" and "Bishops and Priests need to lead the Mass Conversion of Men." He goes on to write:
The Mass Conversion of Men will require a sustained large-scale evangelization and catechesis of men about the Mass and a great movement of the Holy Spirit.
While I certainly agree with the second point, i.e. that the Holy Spirit will play a key role in the return of Catholic men to Mass, I couldn't disagree more with the first, i.e. that a sustained, large-scale evangelization effort is necessary. To explain that, let me share with you my own story - something of a reversion story, if you will - of how I came to be a full participant in the Church.
For nearly all of my adult years in the Church, I never saw more than a few men regularly appear at Mass. There was the random visibly foreign college student doing his best to fulfill his Sunday obligation while studying abroad; the unshaven, pony-tailed hippy-type; the 40-something single man in khakis with invariably sweaty palms; the closely-shaven portly fellow who attended out of obedience to his blue-haired, pant-suited wife who typically served as lector (lectora? lectoress?); the skin-and-bones octogenarian in the tattered trench coat who spent most of Mass on his knees and for whom the "Sign of Peace" simply never made it into the rubrics. As for the rest, it was a brood of clucking hens - and that is putting it nicely. I once made the mistake of taking up the offer of coffee and cake after Mass in the parish aula - but that's another story for another time.
Everything changed for me the day I discovered a local parish run by the Priestly Society of Saint Peter (Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Sancti Petri, FSSP). As the local Catholic bulletin - the editorial staff of which is as heterodox as they come - does not allow the Latin Mass community to advertise its Mass times, I stumbled upon it through a combination of dumb luck and divine grace.
I arrived early and took a place in one of the empty pews in the rear of the church. When the priest - a man not much older than me - intoned the first line of the Asperges me, and the entire congregation broke out in a flawless Domine hysopo et mundabor, I got such a case of goosebumps that the skin on my arms actually hurt. I followed that Mass like someone whose eyesight had just been restored after a lifetime of darkness. I didn't have a Missal, and I didn't know any of the songs or responses. But I knew exactly what was happening. I was at the foot of Calvary. At the elevation, I was literally moved to tears. As much as I wanted to receive Holy Communion that day, I didn't. You see, when I entered that church, I assumed I was in a state of grace. But by the time of the elevation, the conviction formed itself within me that I was not taking my spiritual life serious enough to know, and I didn't want to risk receiving unworthily. I first wanted to make a thorough examination of conscience and confess everything to that same priest who had shown such loving reverence to Our Lord on the altar, who had preached truth from the pulpit I had never heard spoken out loud in church before, who looked like a tried and true soldier of Christ, whose every word and action evinced an ardent desire to help souls get to heaven. I did so at the next available opportunity.
The rest of the family noticed the change in my demeanor immediately: gone were the days of returning from Mass feeling emotionally drained and spiritually frustrated; now, I returned with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart, positively beaming with the glow of God's gratuitous grace. Mass quickly became the center of my spiritual life and the highlight of my week. Needless to say, it was not hard to convince them to join me at the FSSP parish.
In the meantime, much has changed. Both I and the parish have grown steadily since then. I see at least one new male face every month. Before long, he brings his wife and kids along, and a whole new family is attending. In the relatively short time I've been at this parish, it's gone from one priest to three, from three altar servers to a large team that rotates in shifts, and from a little over half full to nearly packed on Sundays and days of obligation. The waiting line for confession before Mass has gone from half a pew to nearly two, and the space behind the last pew is a regular baby pram pileup. We recently moved around the weekday Mass schedule so that people can make it either before or after work, so those are starting to fill up, too. Parish life is active, the choir is growing, the monthly adult catechism classes are always packed, pilgrimages and retreats are becoming more frequent. Our priest is a regular guest in our home, very generous with his time, and always available for the odd rosary blessing and what have you. And I thank God every day from the bottom of my heart for all of it.
Of course, this is entirely anecdotal, being a record of my own personal experience. But I know of many who experienced much the same thing upon their discovery of traditional Catholicism and the Mass of St. Pius V. I think I speak for many when I say that we do not need a "sustained large-scale evangelization and catechesis" of men to get them to come back to the Church, as Mr. Christoff suggests. We just need the Mass of Ages and a few good men with the courage to lead us in prayer and to preach the authentic Catholic Faith.
|Priests of the FSSP celebrating Easter Mass|