The other day on social media a convert to the Catholic faith indulged in a familiar rant–and I sympathize.
This person had visited a charismatic-type Protestant church and said (I paraphrase) “The worship was lively and welcoming. People were happily praising the Lord. There was a joyful spirit and afterward the pastor noticed me, welcomed me and later that day I had a couple of text messages from folks at the church saying how happy there were to see me and hoped I’d be back. Then I went to Mass. The church was nearly empty. Only old people. The priest began by berating the few who were there and complaining that more people didn’t come to Mass. The homily was dull and uninspiring. The music was dreary. No one said hello or welcome. The pastor disappeared afterwards and never greeted me.”
The complaint will be recognized by many converts from Protestantism. Why is the Protestant worship experience so upbeat and positive and Mass so often a downer?
Well, wrong expectations produce disappointment. It is wrong to compare the Protestant service to Mass to start with. It is natural to do so because at first glance they seem comparable: both are groups of Christians meeting for worship. However, on examination the two events are very different.
While many Catholic parishes can certainly do much better at welcoming visitors and evangelization, this is not the primary purpose of Mass.
There are good reasons why the Protestant churches are upbeat and welcoming. Without being too cynical about it, the Protestant churches are in a competitive marketplace. They don’t have the “Sunday Mass obligation” to subsidize attendance. If they are not jolly, welcoming and do not make the worship experience wonderful they will soon be out of business. Protestants vote with their feet. They church shop and a pastor who does not preach well and does not offer what the customers want will soon feel the pinch.
There are other more complicated reasons why Protestant churches seem so good at fellowship. It is because the various Protestant sects seem to gather along doctrinal lines, but in fact they usually gather along social categories. Episcopalians = high end, high income, liberal. Presbyterians=Upper Middle Class graduates. Methodists=Middle Class. Baptists=Middle-Working Class etc. etc. Because they gather along social lines, naturally the “fellowship” is warm hearted and embracing. Birds of a feather flock together. The universality (and diversity) of the Catholic Church makes fellowship more difficult.
So we gather at the altar of the Lord, not along social lines, but our allegiance to the Lord and his Church.
Catholics who go to Mass therefore, expecting a warm fellowship experience, are likely to be disappointed.
What to do about this? The fellowship and camaraderie takes place in the Catholic Church elsewhere. It is in service groups like the pro-life team, the choir, the parish school, St Vincent dePaul, the Food pantry, Knights of Columbus etc etc that warm friendships are made. It is in home groups, devotional groups, prayer groups or third order religious groups that people gather and grow together.
Catholics who like charismatic worship and prayer fellowship may not find that at Mass, but they will find it in their local Cursillo group, the local Charismatic Catholic prayer group or one of the new ecclesial movements like Communion and Liberation or the Neocatechumenate.
A deeper prayer life can be nurtured by joining the third order Carmelites, Franciscans, Dominicans or being a Benedictine oblate.
Finally, I would advise folks not to blame the parish priest too much. He is probably aware that he is not the world’s most stellar preacher and he is probably struggling along with a parish that has many demands and few people to help out. Instead of grumbling about him, he would probably appreciate a few words of thanks and an offer to help out according to one’s gifts.