COMMENTARY: Counting noses

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ This month most Catholic parishes in the country are counting noses at Mass.

They divide the monthly total number of noses by four (or maybe five because this year October has five Sundays) and say this is the proportion of Catholics who go to Mass. Everyone else doesn't.

The assumption is that people either go every Sunday or not at all, a crazy assumption, but the kind priests love to make. Sociologists who have monitored the counts in some parishes say the parish count is lower than theirs.

The major problem with this research on the cheap, however, is that the result is nothing more than a factoid devoid of any possibility of an explanation.

That's enough for most priests, I'm afraid. Some of them seem almost happy about the finding: see how bad the laity are, see how few of them go to Mass, see how materialism and consumerism and capitalism etc., etc., have destroyed the faith of the people.

From the pope to the parish priest, the assumption is that if the laity do not go to church it is their fault or the fault of the"culture."They seem quite incapable of asking whether it might be our fault.

But by definition, you see, nothing is our fault. Perish the thought. Don't even ask the question. Don't try to find out why. Don't even dare think that many people stay away from church on weekends because the Eucharist in their parishes is BORING.

Consider an all too typical parish liturgy.

You arrive and settle in. Some commentator reads a ponderous and perhaps ideological statement about what we're praying for today. Then a hymn is sung, one that is not particularly attractive and not easy to sing. Then there are three readings, the first two of which are utterly unintelligible, even if they were not read by a semi-literate lector. Then the Gospel is read, maybe by the priest or maybe by a deacon who is also semi-literate. Then there is a homily which is all too often badly prepared and an insult to the congregation's intelligence.

Then another rotten hymn. Then the Eucharistic prayer is recited, often with quirky little mannerisms and sometimes without any reverence or emotion.

After the Lord's Prayer people scamper around the church, shaking hands and hugging and interrupting the flow of the liturgy. Then Communion is distributed, often again with funny little quirks. The congregation heaves a sigh of relief _ it's almost over. But perhaps it isn't. There still must be announcements and perhaps a mini-homily by someone who has not been trained in public speaking but is strongly dedicated to whatever cause she or he may be promoting.

I exaggerate, you say? Maybe. I'll admit there are good readers, good homilists, good church musicians, maybe, rarely, even good liturgists. Nonetheless, I suspect many lay people _ perhaps from other denominations, too _ will agree my description is a pretty good description of their parish.

The problem is not the English liturgy.

The research shows the laity like the English liturgy. Alas, when the Mass is said in English, the pitiable pathetic celebration of the Eucharist is more evident than when the priest was muttering the words to himself in Latin.

Even when the Eucharist is well done, the rhythm of its progress makes for boredom. We don't need three readings; there's more than enough in the Gospel stories. If we are to shake hands and wish each other peace, why not do it at the beginning of Mass or the end?

Announcements of all sorts should be banned. What's the point of a parish bulletin if everything in it has to be announced from the altar? Ban all mini-homilies. The conclusion of the liturgy should not be an anticlimax. Above all, avoid the pokiness so beloved by the professional liturgists.

Cardinal Josef Ratzinger has recently complained that the liturgical reform of Paul VI went too far (you can criticize a pope, if you're a cardinal, but only after the pope is dead). My feeling is just the opposite. The present liturgy doesn't go far enough.

The Mass is a celebratory family meal. However, it doesn't look like that, doesn't feel like that, doesn't sound like that. Hence it has a built-in bias toward boredom.

I don't how the Mass can be made to look like what it really is. However, it's time someone begins to think seriously about the problem.