Masses on Christmas or Christmas Eve are some of the most highly attended liturgies of the Church’s year, along with Ash Wednesday and Easter. But not everyone in the pews at Christmas will be a familiar face; the clichés about Christmas and Easter Catholics exist for a reason.
Some might call themselves “lapsed,” others just “infrequent” Massgoers —they’re the Catholics who show up for Christmas without having darkened a church door in months. Perhaps they are there out of a nearly forgotten habit, maybe they come with family members, but often they arrive with sincere religious desire to connect to God.
For pastors and more regular parishioners, Christmas can seem like an opportunity: A chance to invite these lapsed Catholics, suddenly inside a church, to deepen the faith. Parishes give out books by popular Catholic authors, and make it a point to pack the bulletin with upcoming events.
Frequency of Mass attendance among American Catholics has been on the decline for decades, and the decline has gotten more sharp since the pandemic began, according to The Pillar 2021 Survey on Religious Attitudes and Practices.
Since the pandemic began, the number of Catholics who say they never go to Mass has increased to 29% from 18%. It’s not difficult to see why Christmas seems an optimal time for the parish to be extra hospitable.
A secret sauce?
So is there a “secret sauce” to inviting lapsed Catholics back to the faith at Christmas? Is there some technique that promises great results?
Father John Riccardo of Detroit told The Pillar that inviting those who rarely attend Mass to deepen their faith at Christmas “isn’t about the right technique.”
Riccardo is director of ACTS XXIX, a nonprofit that helps priests and parish staff better live the mission and identity of their parishes. He told The Pillar that the key to inviting lapsed Catholics to better practice the faith is simple: proclaiming that faith.
“The single most important evangelistic task is a really compelling and attractive proclamation of the Gospel,” Riccardo said.
“I think what it does is it immediately mobilizes you for mission.”
Riccardo explained that many priests were not trained for a world in which most Catholics have not heard a basic articulation of the Christian faith.
“I’m approaching my late 50s and 26 years ordained,” he said. “Men my age and older were trained for a different era. We were trained for an era that was largely formed by a Christian worldview. Clearly, we’re not living in that era right now.”
Many Catholics, Riccardo said — whether they attend Mass just on Christmas or regularly attend daily Mass –- haven’t heard and responded to the kerygma, a straightforward proclamation that God loves them, and that Christ can free them from sin.
The goal is to see people “overwhelmed” by the Gospel, and “surrender their whole lives to Jesus,” he said.
Are most Catholics already overwhelmed by the Gospel?
“I would beg to differ,” Riccardo told The Pillar.
“We’re living in the middle of a country that is panicked. We’re afraid of dying… It has become very clear that people are more formed by the culture and not by the Gospel, and how can they not be?”
Christmas is “a time to really get clear” on why Jesus came, Riccardo said. “When we’re preaching, too, we don’t need platitudes. This is a time to speak directly into the fear that is all around us” — and the faith that overcomes that fear, he said.
“...Rescued people rescue people,” Riccardo told The Pillar. “That’s a Christian.”
Craig Pohl, director of new evangelization in the Diocese of Lansing, Mich, told The Pillar that while the Church talks a lot about the “new evangelization” — the project of inviting lapsed Catholics to practice the faith — most of the conversation “still exists in the realm of nice ideas,” not clear strategies.
But it is clear, Pohl said, that community is important. Which means that hospitality matters.
One of the “tragedies of the current state of the Catholic Church is that we’ve slowly lost the sense of authentic community,” Pohl said. “For the most part, our parishes don’t really display vibrant, loving, familial environments.”
He said hospitality at Mass counts in the little things.
When a young family at Mass is making a bit of noise in their pew, the priest said, parishioners seated around them “can either say, ‘Hey, can you please leave?’ or I can warmly turn to you and say, ‘I love hearing the noise.’”
“If I do the former,” Riccardo explained, “I won’t see you again” at Mass.
Fr. Mathias Thelen, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Brighton, Michigan, and president of Encounter Ministries, urged that parishes also have realistic expectations about what might come out of once-yearly Mass attendance.
“The Mass requires faith,” Thelen said Nov. 28, when his parish began a preaching series on the Mass.
“In the early church, they didn’t even allow non-Christians to enter into the Holy Liturgy. It’s for those who are already disciples. I say that because sometimes people have kind of a superstitious or magical view of the Mass.”
The laity sometimes say, “‘If we just had Mass like this, everyone would come to believe in God,’” Thelen said. “‘Or if we just did this thing, then unbelieving people are going to believe in Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.’”
But evangelization is a process. And while good preaching can begin a journey toward deeper faith, Mass won’t usually “magically convert” people, the priest said, especially apart from relationships with believers.
The family connection
In fact, no matter how welcoming a parish is, research shows that evangelization is probably more effective at the family Christmas party than in the pews during Christmas Mass.
Researchers at the Barna Group, which studies religious identity and conversion, have found that few adults who don’t belong to a church say they would respond positively to the invitation to attend one.
But two-in-five non-Christians say they would be open to participating in a conversation about Christianity — if the experience felt friendly, according to analysis from researchers at the Barna Group.
And Pohl told The Pillar that most of the time, when he’s seen fallen-away Catholics return to the faith, it’s because of family relationships.
But talking about faith with family requires that Catholics be credible witnesses to the Gospel, Thelen said.
Encounter Ministries, which Thelen helped found, aims to train and equip Catholics to evangelize within their “spheres of influence,” the group says.
“If I’m saying Jesus is my Lord, do I live as if he is my Lord?” the priest asked. “Do I act as if I’m free? … “Do your family members know you stand by what you believe?”
According to the Barna Group’s research, only about 50% of Catholics feel comfortable sharing the journey of their own faith. And fewer say they are “very comfortable” explaining the details of Christian doctrine.
If Catholics aren’t comfortable sharing their faith, they can do a few things, Thelen explained.
First, they can practice sharing their personal experiences of faith. People interested in faith “want authentic knowledge that Jesus is real — that he’s love,” the priest said.
Second, the priest told The Pillar, they can engage friends in conversation about the serious side of life.
“‘What do you want out of life?’” Thelen suggested. “‘Where do you hope to be when you’re 80-years old?’ ‘What happens after we die?’”
It’s not necessary to have all of the answers, Thelen explained, but there’s nothing wrong with starting the conversation. Deep questions help people to take a step back and examine reality.
“Most people who are unbelievers aren’t experts in their unbelief, either,” he said. “It’s not like they went to unbelief class.”
Most important, Thelen added, is that Catholics consider the credibility of their own witness to a life of meaningful faith.
“If we don’t elicit joy in walking with Jesus, we are giving an anti-witness,” the priest said.
“Because joy is the result of knowing that we are loved and we are secure in Him.”