The church is God’s vehicle for salvation

Father John A. Kiley

Every October the Diocese of Providence requests from each parish a “mass count,” a census of exactly how many Catholics are attending Mass on a given Sunday. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has noted in these pages that 17 percent of Rhode Island Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday.

There are reports elsewhere that New England has sadly become the least churched section of the United States, a lamentable title that the Pacific Northwest held for decades. Catholic Mass attendance is low on both coasts and is slightly higher in the Midwest and South. At a recent Woonsocket deanery meeting, the Mass attendance figures for the dozen or so parishes in the city were presented to the assembled clergy. Woonsocket currently claims a population of 43,000 persons. Given the ethnic background of the citizenry (largely French-Canadian, Irish, Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, Spanish) most Woonsocket households have Roman Catholic roots. The Mass attendance figure was sadly staggering: only 3,750 worshipers are found at Mass in Woonsocket on a given Sunday. That is less than 10 percent of the population. Where are Msgr. Dauray, Msgr. Grenier and Msgr. Gadoury now that we need them?

Woonsocket admittedly has a large number of elderly and shut-ins. And many younger persons who were born in Woonsocket now live in suburban Cumberland, Lincoln, North Smithfield and beyond. It is true as well that some senior citizen high-rises have monthly or even weekly Masses that many residents attend faithfully. Excuses aside, the meager attendance at Sunday Mass indicates a deplorable loss of ecclesial faith on the part of the northern Rhode Island populace. And certainly the same is true of Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, West Warwick and, let’s be frank, Cranston and Warwick, too. South County, western Cranston and the East Bay are reportedly a bit better off.

The predicament here is not so much a crisis of individual faith as a crisis of ecclesial faith. The vast majority of the people of Woonsocket – Catholic and non-Catholic – believe in God. Just threaten one of our revered monuments and see what happens. People pray in the corridors of Woonsocket’s hospitals just as frequently as elsewhere. Most still want their babies baptized and their dead buried with a prayer. It is true that the figures for First Communions and confirmations and especially church weddings are down but there is still some nostalgia for these ceremonies.

The real problem is not that people have lost faith in God; rather people have lost faith in the church. Contemporary man views the church as an optional resource on the route to fulfillment. Church membership, church participation, and church tradition are viewed as helpful but optional signs on the road to salvation. Modern man does not see the church itself and church participation as the very path to salvation. Nowadays, salvation is a private thoroughfare comfortably trodden at one’s own pace.

The Roman Catholic Church along with those ecclesial communities that share in Catholic unity is the very continuation of the Incarnation of Christ down through the ages. The church is the beyond in our midst, the presence of God in Christ, made available for all time. Jesus did not mince his words when he claimed to be “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

Jesus was firm and direct when he stated, “No man comes to the Father except through me.” It was no idle gesture when Jesus Christ entrusted the keys of his kingdom to St. Peter, charging him to bind and loose with divine authority. The Fathers of the Church were not speculating when they insisted that there was “no salvation outside the church,” that is, no salvation apart from the blessings imparted most effectively by God through his church. The church is indeed God’s vehicle for salvation in our midst. Those who sadly ignore this truth do so at their peril.

Some might blame the recent, lamentable scandals that have plagued our church for this diminution of ecclesial faith. The problem is much broader and much older than that. Western society has long been losing its faith in institutions. Art, music, dress, language, employment, entertainment, recreation as well as religion all thrive on novelty and originality.

There is no regard for ritual, sacred or otherwise. Everything is a matter of personal taste and individual quest. Somehow Western civilization, and not just the city of Woonsocket, has to reconsider society’s cultural, moral and religious roots.


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