By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY | Published March 1, 2012
The most recent statistics on religious affiliation in the U.S. indicate that there are approximately 69 million of us who currently claim to be Catholic. I often think about what would happen if all of us simultaneously decided to come to church on any given Sunday. We obviously would not have the seating capacity to accommodate all those who would want to attend Mass—even if our parishes had to double or triple or quadruple the numbers of Masses on a given weekend—we would not be able to provide a seat for all 69 million Catholics who sought to attend Mass on any given Sunday. But what a splendid problem it would be to attempt to try to handle.
Whenever I have been fortunate enough to get a little winter break like I did just a couple of weeks ago and to visit a parish church with lots of other vacationing Catholics, I have been amazed by the sheer numbers of people who attend Mass at these places of relaxation. In both Florida a few years ago and last week in Southern California, my experience has been that the churches in these vacation spots are just over-stuffed with folks who want to attend Mass.
While on vacation, I arrived early for the 9:30 a.m. Sunday Mass so that I could quietly offer morning prayer and get a seat because I had been warned that this particular parish fortunately had an excellent pastor and was a very popular site. I chose a corner pew about six or seven rows back from the altar, but after getting settled in I was then asked to move because the parish’s Serra Club was hosting all the diocesan seminarians and reserving that area for their annual gathering to be followed by a later brunch; I was happy to move for the seminarians and Serra members. Then in a pew now farther away from the altar, the ushers next came by and asked that everyone in my pew move closer together so that even more folks could find a seat; again I moved closer to my neighbor, happy to allow a few others to find seats.
There were scores of people who eventually lined the aisles of the church because all of the 1,600 seats were taken. I heard one woman behind me remark that the congregation at this parish was like the Christmas Mass crowd in her parish back home. It was delightful—although I am sure that some folks would have been more comfortable if they had been able to find a seat. Full churches are a happy moment for pastors, for bishops, and for those fortunate enough to have a seat.
Nevertheless I also know that there are too many Catholics who no longer attend the Eucharist or perhaps who even may no longer consider themselves to be Catholic. Infrequently I may receive a letter asking that I remove a name from the baptismal register of a parish because a person does not wish to be regarded as Catholic any longer. While I can write such an individual a letter that assures them that we accept their desire not to practice the Faith or to refer to themselves as a Catholic or to be listed on any parish or diocesan mailing and assuring them that I will have the parish make a notation in the parish register to that effect, I cannot remove their names from a parish record any more than a civil official could remove a name from a public record that said that an individual was born in a given county, on a given day, in a given year. Records belong to history and not to individuals. But such letters contain a heartrending message for me and for all Catholics—we must continue to do everything in our power to make sure that our Church has space for all Catholics and to try to heal whatever may make them feel unwelcome, unloved, or unwanted.
Last Sunday we welcomed some 2,000 catechumens and candidates into the final preparation for the Easter sacraments. It was a moment of great joy. You see the Church can always find space for new members—even for members who might not realize that they are welcome and valued.