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Marin’s ‘action plan’ on disengaged Catholics

May 1, 2015
Christina Gray

After a full year of discussion, Marin County parishes are getting closer to announcing a collective action plan this summer for revitalizing the Mass and reversing the dwindling numbers in their pews.

On April 25, parish leaders from 11 of Marin’s 13 churches met at St. Sebastian Church in Greenbrae for the sixth time since last March to find solutions to a deanerywide decline in eucharistic celebration.

“We’ve been talking for a full year about how can we make the Mass more appealing to those who have disengaged themselves from the practice of Sunday Eucharist,” said Father Cyril O’Sullivan, pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in Lagunitas, who launched the initiative last spring. “How then, will we put legs on this as a deanery?”

Over the course of the year, the pastors and the parishioners they polled shared their observations about why they feel Catholics in the county have become increasingly distanced from the regular celebration of Sunday Mass, the practices of their faith and parish life in general.

A lack of appreciation and understanding of the rituals of the Mass and the Eucharist, even among longtime Catholics, was identified by the deanery as a leading indicator of declining Mass attendance, as was a sense of institutional “aloofness” and a failure to warmly welcome new or returning members of the parish community.

“One of the things that has happened for this generation is that the baton got dropped,” said St. Hilary pastor Father William Brown. “Many people who sit in Mass don’t actually know what we are doing or why, or they don’t remember.”

Others repeated the refrain that gaps in faith formation and changes in parish community life and certain Catholic practices was a key reason for waning Mass attendance. The need for two distinct strategies emerged: how to revitalize the Mass for Catholics who do attend – if even irregularly – and how parishes can attract back to the Mass those who have left parish life or the faith altogether.

Father Brian Costello, pastor of Our Lady of Loretto Parish in Novato, singled out one Marin County church for its welcoming community, full pews, music and ongoing catechesis as having a “template” that works.

“Without incurring the wrath of my brother priests, I think we have a very good model here in Marin County, and that’s St. Vincent’s,” he said. “I know it’s not a parish, but people are driving miles and miles to go to Sunday Mass here.”

Few in the room disagreed.

St. Vincent’s Church in San Rafael is not a self-standing parish but is affiliated with nearby St. Isabella. Still, it “attracts people from all of our parishes,” said St. Anselm parish coordinator Anne Roggenbuck. She said she and her family often attend the 9:45 a.m. Sunday Mass there and said, “I hate to admit it, but I see lots of St. Anselm’s people there,” including school nuns and parish lectors.

Under the direction of Mgsr. Robert Sheeran, director of ministry at Marin Catholic High School, the congregation has grown dramatically. She said he makes the Mass relevant and riveting to people of all ages and by integrating brief explanations of readings or rituals.

Paul Gallagher of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Novato said that while other parishes are struggling with what he called “casual Catholics,” or irregular Massgoers, he doesn’t believe that is who St. Vincent is attracting and the deaneries should take a closer look at what they are offering.”

“It’s a welcoming community,” he said. “Honestly, we have to ask ourselves, do our parishes offer a welcoming community?”

Other suggestions during the meeting included a countywide eucharistic congress, a liturgical renewal course already used with success by Father Pat Michaels of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Mill Valley and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Marin deaneries will meet again in June.

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