The reality of the pews

13 May 2009

By The Record

Figures from the latest Census show there are significantly more Catholics out there than those who actually attend Mass regularly, presenting a serious pastoral challenge for Perth’s priests and laity alike. Anthony Barich reports.


By Anthony Barich 

Before the day of the automobile, when rural priests got around on horseback, families would host home Masses for the local Catholic community.
For families in the area, it was a day to look forward to. Not only did the families from every farm within walking or riding distance gather for a Mass, it was a festive occasion where the social setting of a dinner and maybe even a dance was set alongside catechesis.
The priest, having travelled to the remote property by horseback, would often stay the night and catechesis would be given before and after Mass on Scripture.
In the 1950s, devotional Masses were also celebrated in homes in the metro area by travelling priests, quite aside from the regular school and church Masses. The first Mass at Brentwood was celebrated in the priest’s loungeroom in 1954 before Regina Coeli Church was built.
Fr Pat Cunningham, a priest of over 57 years who turned 80 on March 17, says devotional Masses for family communities is an idea that ties together two things that should be inseparable: family life and faith.
While the idea itself is by no means the solution to a societal problem that sees around five per cent of school leavers retain a connection with the Church, Fr Cunningham, Perth co-ordinator of the Pastoral Data Project, said the process of ‘going to Mass’ starts at home by the building of a prayer life.
“Setting off to Mass is a result of the internal prayer life of the home that comes to its fulfillment on Sunday; so if kids are used to the idea of a loving God and a caring Saviour, then that sets the scene why on Sundays they should all jump in the car and go meet the Lord and meet each other,” he says.
“That’s what used to happen a century ago when people got Into their horse and buggy and travelled enormous distances to get to a Sunday Mass, because the Mass had already commenced in their home catechesis, in the lives they lived, the prayers they said and the charity they expressed. All of this is the background to the Mass they go to.”
He says the Catholic Church in Australia has also not fully explored the concept of home Masses, a practice that was common during settlement days up until the advent of the car, and in some cases after.
He says that people used to ask for home Masses initially, and neighbours were invited. But it faded away, he said, as “I don’t think it was being used sufficiently as an evangelisation tool”.
“If you want to do that, there has to be catechesis before and after about the Scripture, items of the Mass and follow-up catechesis on what the home Mass did for the little local community if several families participated,” he said.
“Maybe some of the old tricks we used to use need to be revisited,” Fr Cunningham said, referring to door-knocking – a practice that was championed by the likes of Frs Eugene McGrath, Geoff Aldous and Barry Whitely but seldom practiced these days.
By doing this as a get-to-know-you exercise rather than being directly evangelical, Fr Cunningham says, the priest got to know the neighbourhood and “could tell you who’s a Catholic and who’s not”.
City Beach parish priest Fr Don Kettle, 47, admits door-knocking is an extra responsibility priests may struggle to find time to do, but it reaps rewards.
Last year he received accurate data collection from a Legion of Mary team from Victoria who door-knocked 3400 houses in two weeks. He said the data meant “I had to get off my butt and follow up, but it was brilliant”.
“One guy was in his 40s, dying with cancer and felt alienated from Church. He resisted the Legion of Mary initially but they persisted and he eventually met me and I ended up anointing him, gave him Communion and did his funeral. This was a guy living in the parish who no-one knew about,” Fr Kettle said.
He says parish outreach must be followed up by initiatives and a welcoming congregation.
 “If people come you need things in place to welcome and reconnect them, otherwise they come to Mass and nobody talks to them. You need to make the parishioners aware of the new faces,” he said, but conceded this would be difficult to keep track of in the larger parishes.
Fr Kettle agrees with Fr Cunningham in calling for catechesis in the home.
“It comes down to formation,” Fr Kettle said. “If it’s not happening in the schools and homes, it’s not happening anywhere else; then we don’t have to play second fiddle to everyone else’s tunes to entertain people. Mass is not about that and it shouldn’t be.”
Part of this, Fr Cunningham says, is that the school must be aware of its parish.
However, every priest has his own experience, and what works in one might not work in another. Both Frs Kettle and Cunningham say that as the Church is competing with so many other priorities these days, door-knocking probably wouldn’t work; but if priests do, “we have to be smart about it”.
Priests also need to acknowledge the realities of people’s personal faith lives.
Fr Cuningham said that in one Perth metropolitan parish, “people aren’t embarrassed by saying they only go to Mass occasionally, like once a month,” Fr Cunningham said. “In other words, many Catholics may only be going to Mass intermittently, and that’s the culture in which they now live.” This is a new experience for a Church to think in this way as it still requires people to attend Mass weekly; but “that’s the gulf between a Church regulation and people’s perception of it in real life”. Once people’s realities are acknowledged, then the Church can ask what is in their lives that might be an obstacle to worship.
“Are they busy with parents and school sport? That, to me, is only one of the obvious distractions; there are many more subtle distractions – in our affluent society we’re too busy about living, we have too many things to do, too many choices to enjoy,” he says.
As Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have acknowledged, new media must be utilised, including innovative, up-to-date websites and emailing parish bulletins out, as the Ukrainian Catholic community does. The Ukrainians’ bulletin also includes catechesis.
He says that the Church must continually expand into developments in new communication technology, as it is where young children and adolescents spend an increasing amount of time.