Early last month I attended my Uncle Joe’s funeral Mass at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the same Morristown, N.J., Catholic church in which he had been baptized 89 years earlier. In an ancient tradition meant to recall baptism, his casket was covered with a white linen pall, blessed with holy water by a priest, and positioned in the sanctuary before the Paschal candle. Decorated with the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega, the candle denotes our fundamental belief in the resurrection of the body made possible by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
The mourners that day were few. Uncle Joe had simply outlived a lot of people. Of the 50 or so friends and family assembled to pray for the repose of his soul, only a handful seemed familiar with the liturgy. A regular Sunday Mass-goer couldn’t help but notice: Almost no one knew what to say and when to say it, or what to do and when to do it.
It’s a deep problem. Only 22% of American Catholics attend weekly Mass, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. One thing that distinguishes Catholicism from other Christian denominations is the doctrine of transubstantiation. Yet in a 2010 Pew survey, 45% of Catholics said they weren’t familiar with church teaching that the consecrated bread and wine used during Communion are not mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but the real thing.
The author goes on to explain that this is not an exclusively Catholic phenomenon; religious illiteracy and dwindling practice are rampant among Protestants, as well.
I encounter the situation described above not just at funerals, but also at weddings and baptisms. I suspect many clergy know the feeling: as you begin to proclaim the Gospel and say, “The Lord be with you…”, the rest is silence. Many don’t know when to stand or sit. Words we pray and profess every week are all-but-unknown to many in the pews. Some of this is understandable—a significant number of people at these liturgies may not be Catholic.
But even that serves as a reminder that our tribal allegiances are disintegrating—Catholics don’t marry Catholics as often anymore, and the practice of the faith has diminished. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve met with couples to discuss having their child baptized, and when it comes to picking the godparents, they are stumped. “We don’t know any Catholics,” they say, matter-of-factly.
They aren’t alone. And I suspect their numbers are growing.
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