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Loyal Catholics

Comparing the dynamics of parish loyalty to a family’s merchandise store

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A parishioner recently told her pastor: “I watched the livestreamed Mass from our parish website this weekend. When the camera panned over the congregation, the attendance was much smaller than before the pandemic.”

The downswing in Sunday Mass attendance since parishes closed during the COVID-19 outbreak represents a turning point. Previously, the number of people in church was declining, but during the pandemic many more Catholics stopped active parish participation.

Yes, Catholics are leaving the Church, but what about those who remain loyal? This article focuses on loyalty rather than on leaving the Church. To do so, we ask, What underlying dynamics keep people loyal to a parish? I’ve thought about this in light of lessons I learned as a boy in my family’s merchandise store.

In my family’s store, we kept regular customers and got new ones by meeting their needs and knowing their names and background. Selling them a shirt, blouse or sewing pattern often depended on whether they trusted our advice. Once we won their trust, they became loyal customers.

Pastoral leaders also need to win parishioners’ trust to gain their loyalty, for a loyal Church member is a faithful one. Solid pastoral leadership leads to loyal parishioners. When trust is lacking, the opposite is true.

Virtues

Kinds of Loyalty

What, then, is Church loyalty? To address this question, we consider three kinds of loyalty — namely, transformational, transactional and emotional. Each has consequences for ministry.

Transformational Loyalty: Transformational loyalty connects us to God and the Church. It begins with God’s gift of grace, given at baptism, and intensifies as we respond to grace through prayer, regular Church attendance, active participation in the sacraments, engagement in social ministry and acts of kindness. Our “yes” at baptism transforms us through the power of the Holy Spirit, and we become friends of God.

Transformational loyalty roots our faith in the Church. When scandal rocks the Church, the Holy Spirit moves us to remain loyal. Even if we feel unappreciated or scandalized by inappropriate clerical behavior, it enables us to weather the storm and recognize the blessings that the Church offers. The paradigm of transformational loyalty is Mary, the Mother of God, who remained faithful as Jesus was rejected, suffered and died on the cross.

Transformational loyalty motivates us on a deep level and puts flesh and blood to our spiritual journey. Dependent on divine grace and rooted in the Mystical Body of Christ, it is our response to the Holy Spirit, urging us to be faithful.

Transactional Loyalty: Transactions in business involve the exchange of products, goods or services and often include the purchase of sales items. Transactional loyalty in business means a purchaser’s faithfulness to a particular store or organization.

Transactions in a church refer to participation in parish celebrations and other events.

Transactional loyalty to a parish means consistent and regular participation in the church’s liturgies, sacramental life and other parish events.

In a parish, transactional loyalty deepens when parishioners regularly connect with what a parish offers. It develops from an appreciation of a parish’s welcoming spirit or style of ministry. Put simply, it involves fidelity to a parish’s way of doing things.

Transitional loyalty to a parish is enhanced by how the Mass and sacraments are celebrated, the pastor’s attitude, and activities such as novenas, prayer sessions, liturgical celebrations, social ministries and catechesis. Loyalty strengthens when the church is clean, necessary repairs are made and pastoral and administrative actions are fulfilled. Parishioners respond to such actions with continued loyalty.

Emotional Loyalty: Emotional loyalty is associated with feelings, rather than reason. Each Christmastime, a loyal customer manifested such loyalty in our store on the day before Christmas. We anticipated her coming from a distance to buy Christmas gifts at our store, even though she could obtain the same merchandise closer to her home. She came because my grandfather did a good deed for her family years ago. Her action reflected emotional loyalty to our store.

The same can be said about emotional loyalty to a parish. It, too, operates on the feeling level and has deep roots, often going back to a positive reaction or a deep-seated bonding with a particular pastor or parish event.

A member of one family described their loyalty to their parish, saying: “Our family has attended Mass at St. Lawrence Church for three generations. Years ago, my grandparents donated the large stained-glass window with our name on it, because of the love the parish showed to our ancestors when they first came to this country. We sit near that window on Sundays to show our appreciation.”

Loyalty Based on Habits

Habits are regular or repeated ways of acting. We are creatures of habit, developed from childhood, as we learn to walk, scrub our teeth and go to the bathroom.

We depend on habits in good and difficult times. To upset or confuse someone, ask him or her to perform actions contrary to their habitual way of acting. Our lives are one long ritual of repeatable actions.

In the spiritual life, virtues are good habits. Virtuous actions reinforce our good habits, sinful ones oppose what is right. Our parents introduced us to the Faith by teaching us good habits, like simple prayers and well as formal ones, like the Our Father.

The 2019 pandemic upset the habit of weekly Sunday Mass attendance when Catholic churches closed. This action safeguarded parishioners, but after churches reopened, some parishioners did not return. Among those not returning, fear of the pandemic kept some away, but for others, the regular habit of attending Sunday Mass broke down and celebrating Mass on the internet replaced in-person Mass attendance in church.

The declining number of Sunday Mass attendees presents a challenge to pastoral leaders. It’s important to address this issue, for loyalty to God and the Church demands active and ongoing habitual patterns of worship. Without habits, we have no ritual celebrations; without ritual celebrations, we have no faith community. Loyalty is the holy grail leading to establishing regular habits.

Transformational, transactional and emotional aspects reinforce loyalty and solidify habitual patterns of faith. Loyalty sets the stage for active parish participation.

Taking a New Look

Practices of loyalty begin in our homes. Here, we first learn the importance of loyalty to God, one another and the Church. Beginning with parental loyalty to practices of the Faith, loyalty extends to siblings, friends, colleagues, neighbors and the parish community.

Loyalty to the Church, learned at home, sets the tone for loyalty to our beliefs and practices. We live out our baptism by our transformational, transactional and emotional loyalty to God and the Church.

To put loyalty into a clearer focus, we list eight reasons for declining Church membership. Following each, a suggestion is given to focus on loyalty, not leaving.

Reason One: Erosion of belief in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is a key reason why people leave the Church.

Suggestion: During Lent, invite parishioners to attend pastoral discussions on the Real Presence and on being loyal to the frequent reception of Jesus in the Eucharist. Make this topic the focus of some Lenten homilies.

Reason Two: Staying home during the pandemic changed some Catholics’ practice of attending Mass in a parish to watching an internet Mass, even though they miss receiving the Eucharist.

Suggestion: During Advent, when preparing for Christ’s coming, discuss with parishioners how internet Masses can help them deepen their appreciation of Christ’s real presence when attending Mass in the parish.

Reason Three: A loss of trust in Church leaders was strongly influenced by how they handled the priest scandal and other Church matters.

Suggestion: Discuss the importance of moving from a top-down approach in Church leadership to one of renewed loyalty, listening and transparency, especially in lieu of the Church’s worldwide synod that is now occurring.

Reason Four: Ceasing to emphasize that missing Mass on Sundays without a good reason is a mortal sin diminished many Catholics’ guilty feelings about doing so.

Suggestion: Through Ordinary Time, focus several homilies on how attending Sunday Mass is the best way to “keep Sunday holy.”

Reason Five: The loss of Church membership has been precipitated by many factors, including the closing or merging of parishes that serve as anchors of faith.

Suggestion: Invite parishioners to an open-ended listening session facilitated by the pastoral staff to discuss renewing one’s loyalty to the Church.

Reason Six: Young adults often feel the Church is out of touch with issues like gay rights, same-sex marriages and other moral matters.

Suggestion: Plan a parish gathering over the Christmas holidays, inviting college-age students and members of the military to a reunion in the parish center as a step on their journey to appreciate the Church’s value in their lives.

Reason Seven: Many children are not present at Mass because their parents have stopped attending Mass on Sundays.

Suggestion: At the beginning of the school year, and when preparing for children’s reception of the sacraments, arrange prayer sessions for parents. Stress the importance of parental good example and loyalty to regular Mass attendance for their children’s growth in faith.

Reason Eight: Teenagers do not find what satisfies their spiritual needs in the parish.

Suggestion: Ask several parish teenage leaders to discuss ways to enhance a positive attitude toward Mass among teens, and how to get young people more involved with the parish. Encourage these leaders to develop a youth project, stressing the value of being a loyal parish member.

Troubled times bring conflicting feelings and manifest the need for spiritual growth. This provides the occasion for encouraging parish loyalty, habits of regular Sunday Mass attendance and practice of the virtues. May Mary, the loyal Mother of God, help us enhance our loyalty to Jesus as we pray for a revitalized Church!

FATHER ROBERT J. HATER, Ph.D., a Cincinnati archdiocesan priest, is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is professor emeritus at the University of Dayton and resides at St. Clare Parish in Cincinnati.

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Theological Virtues

“The theological virtues dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have God for their origin, their motive, and their object — God known by faith, God hoped in and loved for his own sake.

“There are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. They inform all the moral virtues and give life to them.

“By faith, we believe in God and believe all that he has revealed to us and that Holy Church proposes for our belief.

“By hope we desire, and with steadfast trust await from God, eternal life and the graces to merit it.

“By charity, we love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for love of God. Charity, the form of all the virtues, ‘binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (Col 3:14).”

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1840-44

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