Where are the young people?

Our Lady of the Woods

by Fr Michael Mahoney SM

The South Westland parish includes five towns, from Harihari to Haast. Each weekend there is Mass in four of the five towns. In four of them there are almost no young people present. In the fifth, most of the congregation are under the age of 25. This fifth town is Franz Josef, where there are lots of tourists. Many of the Catholic ones come to Mass. We ask ourselves why Mass attendance has fallen off so drastically in the past 30 years. There is no one reason. There are many contributing factors.

Sunday used to be a rest day or family day. Shops were shut. Now many people have to work 24/7, including many Sundays, so the habit of coming to Mass has died. In former times people believed it was a grave sin to not attend Sunday Mass. People no longer believe that. What had appeared to be immutable laws were shown to be changeable. For example, the general prohibition of eating meat on a Friday. To many Catholics, changes such as this were disconcerting.

Scandal damage 

The paedophile scandal did huge damage to many young people and families. It also seriously damaged Church credibility and its self-image. Instead of being proud to be a Catholic, people became ashamed. Instead of speaking out on social issues, the Church in New Zealand became silent. When it did speak out, too often people retorted that it had lost its credibility to speak out on moral issues.

All this has had a profound effect. The habit of Sunday Mass has been lost by Catholics in many New Zealand towns. In the big cities this is to some extent masked, but in rural New Zealand it is starkly evident. New Zealand-born youth are absent. Not only this, but, as a consequence, there are few vocations to the priesthood or religious life.

What can be done to reverse this trend? Young people are as generous and altruistic as ever — witness the volunteers to any good cause. What has changed is that the Catholic Church no longer has as a major focus helping those who need help. When solutions to New Zealand’s problems, such as lack of housing, are sought, reporters no longer go to the Catholic Church. Our social outreach has diminished in fact and in public perception.

The religious sisters who in their hundreds worked day and night for the poor are gone. Orphanages, homes for the poor, armies of sisters who kept a tab on families, helped wives distraught because of their husband’s drinking or violence — are gone. Caritas does important work, but is not locally/parish-based. Challenge 2000’s focus is youth, but it is largely unknown. Its funding is enough for only a few. Have you ever heard of it? The simple truth is that when young people look at the Catholic Church, they do not see an institution they feel drawn to be part of. It does not seem to have a primary focus on screaming–out needs that everyone can see in their suburbs or towns. Young people who want to do something for others join a body like Médecins Sans Frontières. With no fanfare, it lives Pope Francis’s exhortation to be people of mercy.

We in the Church have become entangled and strangled in bureaucracy. The endless laws about buildings. The endless compliance. Large numbers of people to administer it, all of whom have to be paid good salaries. Our core mission has been choked. It’s hard to be a volunteer for the sake of the Gospel. Everyone is paid for everything they do. Where is the Gospel in all this? What is interesting and challenging in what we do? What do we do for suffering New Zealand that would inspire young people to leap to join us? What could we do, as a Church, to get back on the radar as a worthwhile public institution?

If we look round New Zealand, there are plenty of challenges. One of them is the whole question of young people in prison. Our reoffending rate is abysmal. When young people come out of prison, many return to their former haunts. Of course they do — most have no other real option.

Care for young offenders 

Perhaps the Church could spearhead a comprehensive programme for young offenders. In conjunction with the judiciary and Police, put together the nuts and bolts of something with permanent effects.

An important element in it would be professional training while in prison. Young people who wanted to could leave prison with a recognised qualification — plumber, electrician, technician, health worker — you name it. They would be released on parole 18 months before their sentence was up, to live in a town far from where they had offended. They would have a job and salary in line with their qualification. They would live in a designated house that might have two others like them, but further along the parole track. One who already had almost 18 months in this situation and would soon return to a normal life. Another, who had been there for about half of that. They would have to stay there for the 18 months. If they broke parole it would be back to prison.

The initiative would be a Church one, mentored by young Catholics living in a nearby house. Already qualified and working, they would receive training to look after the ones on parole. This would be their contribution to the Catholic mission. Active participation in the local parish would be part of the commitment.

Drastic measures 

The above is one example of how we could get involved in a real and serious social need. It might not be a good one. But if we’re to turn around the steady exodus from the Church, we have to take drastic measures. And it’s the sort of thing Catholics do. Because of their faith.

Each country has its weaknesses. Each Church also. At the moment, our Church is seldom quoted on TV when big social issues are raised. It is the City Mission or the Salvation Army who are considered the experts. Yet we have a wealth of experience — 150 years ago it was people like Mary MacKillop who did this sort of thing. She and her helpers were only in their 20s, but were running serious social projects — in the name of the Church!

Can we see that we’re not attractive because so much of what we do is for ourselves? So much of our income is spent on maintenance and administration. We might see ourselves as having a profound spirituality, but outsiders don’t. And you don’t have to belong to a church to find spirituality. Until we answer what are perceived as real needs, things are not going to change. The young people are out there. It’s we who have to change. Drastically.

Fr Michael Mahoney, SM, is parish priest of Our Lady of the Woods, in South Westland.

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Reader Interactions


  1. John says

    josmile above is absolutely SPOT ON.

    When a church is such an incredible din at Christmas as was the case at one Northside church BRISBANE, some years ago, so much so that the celebrant could not be heard even when he is using microphone, even the most devout are sorely tested.
    But it gets worse. So what happened when a metre wide “peace” symbol was placed on the wall as part of the decor, a symbol used for initiation of youth into Satanic cults?
    The parish priest Fr Peter Clifford OFM apologised later and a large contingent from the parish went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre. and now there is a huge picture of St Mary McKillop over the spot, just to let everyone know .

    There is hardly a church in Brisbane which does not have chat before a mass, and chat continues immediately after when the faithful are making their private thanksgiving. It does not happen in the Polish church at a Newstead Brisbane church where there is a regular all night vigil, where the monstrance with the Eucharist is there and respected by all, and where Benediction happens close to mass.
    And at the Carmelite monastery at Ormiston there is also respect for the Divine presence.
    The comment by Fr Michael Mahoney SM comes as no surprise at all. Its been happening slowly for a long time.

    What of Modernism? Several Popes have all pointed to the dangers. Is it not true to say that this is the reason why hell has been removed out of the equation?

    Where do priesthood comment on the miracles of the Eucharist? Where does this appear in RE programmes? Where is this supported by parents? Is it not true to say that dialogue in the home has waned at mealtime, and TV dinners have taken over? And is it not true to say that congregations have become more and more AUDIENCE DRIVEN due to the omnipresence of TV?

    Whatever happened to shame? Is this not the fault of commercial television? There are no advertisements that use shame today. Why?
    But shame is alive and well in Catholic charismatic renewal is it not? And does this movement restore a sense of shame? You bet.
    You can shame a chimpanzee, and a dog. But human entrepreneurs make megabucks by gyrating around a microphone as if it was a male phallus, and openly defy the churches “glamour of evil” that is recited sadly only once a year during recital of baptismal promises. (Parents allow this when they are uncritical of the dangers of TV, media and internet.)
    China has no less six words for shame and their next door neighbours the Japanese are forever apologising- such is their respect for shame, and yet China and Japan are nominally neither Muslim, Jew or Christian. In the Victorian era crime fell by fifty per cent with shame. a cost saving for the police force. But in Tulane, USA a questionnaire among college students yielded the incredible results ; 20 % said it was OK to shoot someone who stole from you, and 8% said it was OK to shoot someone who insulted you. No police needed, the gun will do. Television, and the craze that occupies the minds of screenwriters who promote more violence and more lewd movies.
    But is it also not true to say that at the heart of things is a gradual loss of a sense of the Sacred? It has returned in C.C.R, and there are pockets of serious minded Catholics who put in the time for quiet adoration. Thanks must got to Christian Brother Con Moloney (deceased) whose pioneering efforts have helped forge a renewed sense of this Sacred, that was originally brought to the attention of the Catholic church way back in 1947 at Montichiari, where Mary pointed out the giving of less and less importance to the Eucharist. And each year 8th December she promised special graces for all those who gave up one hour between 12 and 1 pm, to her. Where is Montichiari taught in Catholic schools? Where is it taught in families? The depersonalisation of Eucharist has been going on for a long time, and the public (youth particularly- age three upwards) are quick to catch on. Is the story of Bolsena/ Orvieto about bringing back this reverence? “Pope Urban IV was prompted by this miracle to commission St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the Proper for a Mass and an Office honoring the Holy Eucharist as the Body of Christ. One year after the miracle, in August of 1264, Pope Urban IV introduced the saint’s composition, and by means of a papal bull instituted the feast of Corpus Christi” (‘Real Presence’).

    But what of the scandalous story of Ouija boards that were used on a Christian Living camp at a Great Public Schools college Brisbane, St JOSEPHS GREGORY TERRACE ? One lad brought the story back to his mum who promptly took him out and put him into a state public college nearby- she wasn’t going to spent the money for this sort of influence. She went on to acquire a MATheol, and later a PhD in Bede Griffiths.
    St Josephs GT with with the aid of the GT Old Boys built a new college chapel. A return to grass roots.
    Quite a turnaround wasn’t it?

    But the bottom line is the sacred.
    Perhaps that’s why four Garabandal girls walked out backwards when inside the church, to let the planet know that the Sacred should be respected.

    “We rise again from ashes from the good we’ve failed to do, we rise again fro ashes to create our lives anew…”

  2. Francis says

    The Pedophile Scandal can’t be the cause since the numbers of people attending Mass, vocations etc started the sharp decline from the mid 60s onwards. Two major things happened that decade in the Church – Vatican II and the introduction of the New Mass. Prior to that Worldwide including in the Western World, the Church was growing, vocations wer up, and the % of Catholics who went to Mass were high. All that changed when the Centuries old Tridentine Mass which produced so much fruit in the Church over Centuries, was replaced by a Man Centered, watered down, semi-protestant Mass. Also with the ambiguities and watering down of Church teachings in the Vatican II documents paved way for a shifting away from the unchangable doctrines an teaching of the Church to poor catechesis if not heretical teachings spread throughout the Church. The experiment to please the world has completely failed.

    To show proof that it isn’t just because of the modern times we live in, go to any place where the Traditional Latin Mass is said, solid traditional Catholic Sermons and there you will find Churches with increasing numbers as well as many young people. Truth and real reverence and beauty is what is attractive. And that what the Catholic Faith and the Traditional Mass is. So the young people recognise it and are drawn to the centuries old teachings of the Church as they are the answers to all our problems in this world, in our own lives, and the way to find Eternal happiness in the next life.
    If people are not told about Heaven, Hell, Mortal Sin, the true purpose of this life, and all the other” difficult teachings”, why bother going to Mass and practicing your Faith when you can just care about the environment,poverty etc as a non-practicing Catholic? Or not a Catholic at all.
    The Church’s mission is to save souls – and many clergy in the Church unfortunately have completely lost that mission or never had that instilled in them in the first place.

  3. John Shone says

    Quite right Francis. Fr Michael is a good priest (I knew him from his St Bede’s days); nevertheless, his comments rather strike me as lacking any sense/acknowledgement of the vital importance of teaching about the Truths and Time-honoured Essentials of the Catholic Faith. Young people today don’t go to Mass in any numbers mostly because their parents also can’t be bothered much with mass-going and the sacraments… and so on, and so on. Since Vatican II, the proper and thorough teaching of the Catholic Faith has gone downhill with considerable speed. That combined with a the tidal wave of secularism and relativism in recent decades and the young Catholic today has no defence against the hedonistic attractions/touchstones of the world. Thus, ignorance is endemic. Moreover, our liberal-leaning Church much prefers an emphasis on the purely social-work approach of saving the world from all manner of man-made threats and vices; yet, it repeatedly fails to espouse with strong and unbending voice the very thing it was commissioned to do over 2000 years ago – namely, the Christ-given imperative to instruct the faithful as to the absolute necessity of saving one’s immoral soul from an otherwise sorrowful and everlasting death. The fact is, everything that is good and just for humanity – including our material sustenance – will be the fruit of a faithful and diligent adherence to that God-sanctioned commission.

    • John Shone says

      My apologies to NZ Catholic readers of this article for a mis-type. In the second to last sentence of my commentary, “immoral” soul should, of course, be “immortal” soul!

  4. Anonymous says

    Where are the young people? Great question. I take a look at our Catholic schools—more popular than ever and bursting at the seams. Yet I probably see <5% of these students at Sunday Mass. Their parents are absent too, but their grandparents are still there. I think we should consider more strongly that our schools are vital parts of our parishes, and to ensure that parents who send their children to our schools also bring their children (and themselves) to Mass. The primary objective of our Catholic schools is to raise our children in the Christian faith, and the Mass is the source and summit of this life. Perhaps this concept has been lost with the loss of religious staff..

    When I got married (in a Catholic church, a few months ago), many of the friends my wife and I had made at Catholic schools were at the Nuptial Mass. Many of them hadn't been to Mass since they left school. They are baptised, confirmed and have received Communion, and have 13 years of Catholic education under their belts. But they don't understand the first thing about the faith, and most would not describe themselves even as cultural Catholics. At school, they had no respect for our religious education classes, and their parents never took them to Mass. Otherwise, they received a great education—the only thing their parents cared about.

    Of course, our faith is about much more than passing the knowledge of it on to children and teenagers. But the kind of mission and works of mercy that Fr Michael mentions here is only possible with our young people participating in the first place. Luckily all is not lost—we still have our schools, our finest asset and the legacy of so much work. Let's leverage them more in our parishes and communities. Let's hold them to a higher standard of care of our children's souls.

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