The Christmas season allows an opportunity for Catholic renewal
By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register
Going to Church is a big part of a Catholic Christmas – even if it’s not a big part of the rest of the year for the majority of Canadian Catholics.
On a normal Sunday, between 15 and 25 per cent of Canada’s Catholics attend Mass (15 per cent of us are weekly attenders and another nine per cent monthly). But on Christmas Day, almost half the Catholics in the country cram themselves into a pew, according to new research by sociologist Reginald Bibby and the Angus Reid Institute.
The gap between weekly numbers and Christmas attendance isn’t something to bemoan, but rather an opportunity, said Bibby. Even without the research, that’s how St. Michael’s Cathedral rector Fr. Michael Busch views his lost sheep on Christmas morning.
“That’s where you have to make these very special moments of engagement for these people. You don’t yell at them. You don’t say ‘Where were you the rest of the year?’” said Fr. Busch.
Bibby suggests the people who show up occasionally – whether at Christmas, Easter or weddings and funerals – are open to greater involvement in the life of the Church. The challenge is that non-involved Catholics want something more from their Church than they typically experience.
“Included in that, people will often say, ‘If I could get something out of the homily,’” said Bibby. Preaching that seems too abstract, too theological, too fixated on the same issues week after week just don’t meet people’s spiritual needs, he added.
“They’re not fussy customers. I can’t emphasize that enough,” said Bibby. “They really are talking in a pretty minimalist way about something they could get out of the homily.”
The poll results are on based on surveys done over 2013 and 2014 involving more than 5,000 Catholics. Further research by Bibby and Angus Reid can be found in their book, Canada’s Catholics: Vitality and Hope in the New Era.
As for Christmas, the polling showed attendance outside Quebec hits a high of 64 per cent of Canada’s Catholics, versus 33 per cent in Quebec. Regular weekly Mass attendance outside of Quebec is also higher (22 per cent compared to eight per cent), driven largely by waves of immigration in major cities, according to Bibby.
There are about 13 million Catholics in Canada — almost 40 per cent of the population and easily Canada’s largest religious group.
Just because the majority of Catholics don’t regularly go to Church doesn’t mean they consider themselves any less Catholic.
“The fact that such large numbers of Catholics make a point of showing up at Christmas is a reminder that many continue to value their Catholic faith,” said Bibby in a Dec. 15 press release.
Nationally, 80 per cent of Canadians raised in Catholic households continue to call themselves Catholic whether or not they go to Church. In Quebec, where Church attendance is lowest, self-identification as Catholic remains highest. Outside of Quebec just 77 per cent of those raised Catholic still call themselves Catholic, versus 88 per cent in Quebec.
Showing up Christmas Day is, in fact, a signal that “the majority of Catholics today place considerable value on beliefs, prayer, the occasional Mass, rites of passage and being Catholic,” said Bibby.
Such Catholic values don’t translate into acceptance of Catholic doctrine, particularly on questions of sexual behaviour, sexual orientation, divorce, leadership roles for women and legal access to abortion.
“They also are no longer passive and acquiescent, nor particularly obedient,” said Bibby. “They want to make their own moral and ethical decisions.”
The study also revealed that no religious group in Canada has benefited from immigration in recent years as much as the Catholic Church — adding half-a-million Catholics in the last 10 years.
“You look at some denominations and realize they would like to have half-a-million people in total at this point,” said Bibby.
Whether Catholic parishes can attract the allegiance of Canadian-born children of immigrants, or their grandchildren, is an open question, said Bibby.
“It’s not written in the stars that you can’t do that,” he said.
As for the Catholics who are not churchgoers, Bibby said all the Church has to do is talk directly, confidently, kindly and in plain language to them.
“There’s a tremendous need for translation and for conversations.”