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The Sunday Slide

The pope declares Sunday Mass attendance a 'duty,' but surveys have found a declining attachment to worship.


When it comes to choosing between weekend worship services and the allure of Southern California's entertainment, recreational and cultural enticements, the faithful can find themselves facing a moral dilemma--or at least a little passing guilt.

Add the fact that for many people, the weekend is not only their opportunity to relax and unwind, but also a time for seemingly endless commitments to family, friends, associates, the soccer team and the PTA.

So, when Pope John Paul II declares that attendance at Sunday Mass is a "grave obligation" and a "duty," many good Catholics voice some reservations. The papal declaration came earlier this week in a closely reasoned 100-page apostolic letter titled "Dies Domini," Latin for "The Day of the Lord."

Alison Corrigan of La Crescenta, for one, says she doesn't go to Mass every Sunday. "I don't think it's always necessary," she said.

"I don't think being in church makes you a good person. Basically it's how you live . . . and how you treat others. I don't think you need to be there. I have my three kids and we do as well as we can."

Irene Hasting of Valencia voiced a similar thought. "I think the lifestyle is really changed. A lot of parents both work," she said, adding that weekends can be the only time for family outings or for meeting other obligations.

Others like Alma De La Concepcion, who sings in the choir at St. Dominic Catholic Church in Eagle Rock, said Sunday Mass might not be for everyone.

"It's not really, really important. But it's up to you how you feel," she said. As for her, however, going to Mass is something she wants to do, even during the summer when the choir is on vacation. "It's not an obligation for me," she said. "For me, it's a commitment."

To be sure, those comments, gathered from Catholics at a Montrose shopping district, do not constitute a scientific survey. But they match widespread findings indicating a declining attachment to Sunday worship.

Across the United States, surveys have estimated that one-fourth to one-third of Catholics attend Sunday Mass. Locally, officials of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the nation's largest, maintain that local attendance is significantly higher.

Around the world, the percentage of Catholics attending Mass has also dropped significantly. In Latin America, church officials blame a shortage of priests. In Austria, which the pope visited last month, only 17% of Catholics attend Mass. Even in Rome the figure is 28%, according to Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments, and Archbishop Geraldo Majella Agnelo, secretary of the same congregation. The two met with reporters in Rome earlier this week.

Such trends have disturbed the pope. "In the minds of many of the faithful, not only the sense of the centrality of the Eucharist but even the sense of the duty to give thanks to the Lord and to pray to him with others in the community of the church, seems to be diminishing," the pope wrote in his letter.

It isn't that weekend sports or other recreational activities are to be avoided, the pope said. They can be good for both the human spirit and the body. But the point is, he said, that Catholics should put first things first.

"Unfortunately," the pope wrote, "when Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a 'weekend,' it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see 'the heavens.' "

Of course, the pope is not alone in voicing such angst. Worry about "backsliders" has been a familiar refrain of the Protestant clergy. Similarly, Jewish leaders have worried that public school athletic events and other such activities on Friday nights compete for their youths' time when they should be observing the Jewish Sabbath.


Sunday, the pope said, "is a celebration of the living presence of the risen Lord in the midst of his own people." Even on vacation, John Paul said, Catholics should make an effort to attend Mass wherever they may be.

At its heart, Sunday is intended as the "Lord's Day," John Paul said. His letter traces its historical roots to Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 2:2-3) which recount that God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. John Paul also spoke of Christian adaptations that moved the Sabbath observance from Saturday to Sunday and its centrality to a Catholic's worship of God and remembrance of Christ's death and Resurrection.

Moreover, John Paul said, Sunday is a time for like-minded believers to come together in community and to support each other.

"If believers are not to be overwhelmed, they must be able to count on the support of the Christian community," the pope wrote.

Talk to lay Catholics, however, and one quickly hears of the worldly realities that interfere with the papal ideal of Sunday worship.

Betty Myers, who attends St. James the Less Catholic Church in La Crescenta, enjoys going to Mass when she is able to drive.

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