1962, seventeen years after end of World War II. There had been strong growth in the Church – vocations to the religious life, the priesthood and missionary religious orders, the building of new churches – but only until the late 1950’s and then a decline became noticeable.
In the Nottingham diocese in 1962, 72,000 people regularly attended mass and there were 112 priests (in 1992 only 37,000 but still 112 priests, and in 2019 less than 30,000). The Second Vatican Council was held 1962-65 and Church life continued steadily until 1968, but with grumbles about the mass not being in Latin, altars and priests facing the people – yet gladness, too, about understanding the mass better, feeling more of a community. People missed the silence of the Latin mass, did not like their prayer being interrupted by other peoples’ praying aloud and did not like, and often ignored, the sign of peace – but numbers stayed steady.
Then came ‘Humanae Vitae’ in 1968 which restated the Church’s traditional teaching on birth control. There was a sharp fall away in numbers coming to mass and certainly in numbers for confession, a decline measured vividly in a survey of Catholic life around the world. Professor Hornsby-Smith (still alive, in his 90’s) was the co-ordinator of the survey in this country and he wrote about the marked difference between 1965-68 and 1968-72.
I had lunch with three fine elderly priests in the early 1970’s and they talked about “the good old days” of only a dozen years before: good mass attendance, many regularly at confession, the strength of Catholic societies, but they admitted there were many for whom “the good old days” had no meaning. Mass attendance was about 40% of the parish – which meant 60% never came. Not good. Many came to confession but most of them were regular and were only about 5% of the parish. 95% never came – a terrible failure. There were very many lost sheep in the good old days.
I remember when I was a boy our parish priest beginning to take weekly mass counts. We had an average of about 1,100 each week, the church nicely full for the four celebrations of mass, but he was disappointed: it represented only one third of the Catholics in the parish – where were all the others? Holy Communion was given only at the 7.30 am and 9.00 am mass because of fasting from midnight. How could we invite people to mass and then refuse them Holy Communion? But we did. Many of our good people received Holy Communion only once in the year and if a boy (no girls aloud) sang in the choir at the 10.30 am mass he had to come to early mass for Holy Communion, and the same for the alter servers (no girls allowed) at the 10.30 am and 12 noon. Why did the Church make it so difficult, the priests wondered . . . .
After the pandemic we shall be in a new age. Shall we continue to fade away as was noticeably happening? If we look back, yes: we shall simply repeat what has already been seen to fail. We have to look forward, to bring God’s love to today’s world. Jesus told the religious rulers of his day that they thought more of their teaching and self-importance than of the people and the love of God.
We need prophets, to show us inspiringly with loving patience where we have been so wrong (e.g. “Catholic and non-Catholic” – so insulting to most of the world) and leading us to see as God sees. Jesus began his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed . . .” the message for every age.
Where would you start? Whistling down the wind at meetings, discussion groups, programmes, papers, raising questions (women priests, married priests, same-sex relationships, divorce and remarriage, all forbidden to be discussed) . . . . We must make a more generous world, coming together with reference for the world and its peoples, longing for freedom and justice, and care for creation. “The sowers went out to sow the seed . . . the seed must die to bring new life.”
May God bless us,
(21st March 2021)