Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Want young people at church? Stop your Sunday shopping.

Sherry Weddell of the Colorado Springs-based Siena Institute has been doing important work on the demographic problems facing American Catholicism. She cites disturbing figures:

"Roughly 32% of those raised Catholic have abandoned the identity altogether. An additional 38% of those raised Catholic retain the identity but seldom or never bother to show up. 30% attend Mass at least once a month. Only about 15.6% are at Mass on a given weekend... Catholics leave the Church and the name Catholic by age 23. The majority by age 18."

She notes that attending CCD, involvement in youth ministry and going to a Catholic high school make little or no difference about whether a young man or woman stays Catholic.

But so far she misses one obvious question:

What do young churchgoing Catholics do on Sunday when they start to drift from the Church?

Certainly, some are sleeping in or goofing off. Yet in my experience many young Catholics are working very hard to support themselves or their families or to prepare for the future.

Unlike those fortunate to have "normal" weekday jobs, my twentysomething friends who work retail all have to work Sundays because that's when everyone shops.

If young people are busy working, it's very hard for them to get to Mass.

Catholics are notoriously apathetic about evangelization. If Catholics must be apathetic, let's at least be apathetic in the right ways and not shop or contract labor on Sunday.

Every time we shop on Sunday, we provide a bit more pressure on some young low-paid worker to skip church. This is a matter of worker's rights and, yes, social justice.

As the Catechism says:

"Sanctifying Sundays and holy days requires a common effort. Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord's Day."

This is a larger problem than is recognized. In response to these comments on Mark Shea's blog, one woman wrote:

"My husband frequently has to work both Saturday evening and Sunday morning. He works for a grocery store. He has asked if he can be excused from Sunday work because of his religious faith and been told no, because he's in management. It's either quit his job (not an option!) or frequently be literally unable to attend Mass.

"So many people think absolutely nothing about zipping over to the supermarket after Mass on Sunday to pick up a jar of peanut butter. Come on, you couldn't wait one more day? You couldn't think about these things on Saturday?"

This woman's plight is too common. It also suggests Sunday labor has ripple effects. If her family owns only one car (a likely case, in a country where there is less than one car for every two people) both she and her children will face more difficulties simply attending Mass.

Just imagine the difficulty if both spouses work more than two low-paying jobs to stay afloat.

Some parishes are very aware of the problems of arranging rides to Mass for the elderly or disabled. But I'm not sure we're very good at helping distressed families or newly independent young people physically travel to Mass. A mere volunteer driving program can help people grow in faith.

What's more, destructive economic habits don't end with the worker. Many Catholics who leave the faith surely start their decline in a fateful Sunday morning decision to visit the mall instead of Mass.

Both custom and law once prevented Americans from shopping and unnecessary economic activity on Sunday. Such laws are now on the wane, as is churchgoing and human happiness.

Catholic commentators love to condemn the dictatorship of relativism. But for the working man or woman who has trouble making it to Mass on Sunday, a far greater threat to faith is the small dictator in management. Not to mention his many Catholic patrons, myself included, who have acted like Sunday is no different than any other day.

We cannot serve both God and Mammon. What easier way to serve God than through collective inaction on the Lord's Day?