Last week the Pope announced the formation of a new Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. Though I have my doubts as to its likely effectiveness, it is clear that no country needs it more than Australia, as the experience of attending Sunday Mass at my parish church yesterday attests.
Luke 10: wipe the dust of the unhearing city off you
The Gospel for the novus ordo yesterday was on the sending out of the 72; but the main lesson the Dominican priest drew out of it was that if people don't listen to the message, it isn't necessarily our fault.
He was looking out at a sea of grey haired parishioners - I saw one young family and maybe there 10 people in total, including me, under 50, and maybe half a dozen more under 70 of the hundred or so people there. And he reflected on the pain of this ageing generation at the absence of their children from the mass; their concern over their unbaptised grandchildren.
But beyond the duty of us all to preach the message of God, he offered no message of hope.
And why would they come?
Yet the hard reality is that it is partly our fault. Or at least the fault of all of those who have resisted the Pope's push to restore integrity to the liturgy and continue to promote casual indifference to the ceremonies of the Mass.
True, no matter how hard we counter the myths of secularism, no matter how hard we argue our case some will not listen.
But Luke 10 also points to the need for signs and wonders, of the need for joy to convince.
How do we undermine those signs, that joy?
Through choirs who continue to sing trashy 1970s hymns. Choirs who consistently insist on being overambitious. Or fail to practice and get right the essentials in order to focus on the flashy stuff instead.
We undermine the sense of the sacred with the insistence on communion under both kinds received standing (even in churches where one must virtually trip over the Extraordinary Ministers to return to your seat).
And with sermons that are either counsels of despair rather than attempts to kindle fervour anew, or are outdated meanderings imported wholesale from some other culture altogether.
To get people to come to Mass, to believe, one has to convince them of the value of the time, to instill a special sense of the sacred, of true worship. The sermon needs to fire the congregation up, whether or not they agree with it, to make them think. And that was absent, as it has been from so many masses I've attended, trad and novus ordo alike.
This particular mass was actually slightly better than past ones I've attended there. The perspex 'altar' was thankfully disguised by a heavy altar cloth. The singing by the choir was in tune and not overambitious (they simply said the things often done badly by a cantor). Texts and even music of the mass was made available to all even if not many actually sang (unlike the other non-Dominican parish nearest to me which doesn't even bother with hymnals for the congregation). There was even one non-schmaltzy, quite traditional hymn (Be thou my vision, admittedly in a modern text) as a recessional. And unlike my other nearest parish which is otherwise generally more reverent in tone, the altar server was male.
Yet there were still jarring moments. The make-up your own approach to the confiteor section of the mass, for example, promoted the instant canonisation of the congregation (we were invited to reflect on the grace that makes saints rather than worry about our sins!). And most jarring of all, the priest suddenly interrupted the flow of the mass to ask (twice) the congregation whether we had a collection now (why he couldn't have quietly asked the ageing acolyte wasn't clear). Now it is true that the priest was obviously a visitor, filling in for the regular priests. But the style of sudden interjections of the profane in ways designed to interrupt the sense of the sacred is something I've unfortunately come to expect from the Dominicans (though in fairness, it probably isn't particular to them) who run several of the parishes and chaplaincies on my side of town.
And without a sense of the sacred, one goes out of obligation. But that is not enough to sustain most people, or bring in new converts.
Nor is the traditional mass necessarily the answer: at my local alternative, the excruciatingly bad singing of the chant (and occasionally polyphony), sabotage from novus ordo users of the Church (at Ascension a rival choir insisted on practicing at the back of the Church all the way through the sung mass), an excruciatingly ugly Church, and many more factors I could list, don't add up to much of a positive experience.
Now I'm probably more concerned with the aesthetics of the Mass than many. But if re-evangelization is to have any hope of making inroads, we have to make the Mass actually attractive to attend, and I don't mean with sideshows and diversions, but with real engagement.
The new Pontifical Council
The new Council has been charged with the task of "promoting renewed evangelisation in countries where the first announcement of the faith has already been heard and where there are Churches of ancient foundation, but where a progressive secularisation of society is being experienced, a kind of 'eclipse of the meaning of God'."
It is not, in my view, a positive sign that its head is Archbishop Fisichella, who lost the support of many members of the Pontifical Academy for Life. A more obvious solution might have been reinvigorating the existing Congregation for Evangelisation of Peoples - but presumably the Pope regards that as a lost cause, not least because it is currently under investigation for financial malfeasance!
But let's hope that the renewed focus on re-evangelization - aided by the revised missal and rumoured forthcoming 'reform of the reform' motu proprio - have some impact at the local level. Soon.