Why more Filipinos are missing the mass

Source: Social Weather Stations

The Manila Times, April 13, 2013 

It’s shocking news for the Church hierarchy: Only 37 percent of Filipinos go to church weekly, according to the Social Weather Stations’ poll February 2013, and the figure has continually gone down from its peak of 64 percent in 1994.  That’s even lower than the comparable 42 percent figure in the more secular US, which inarguably is less religious and less catolico cerrado than the Philippines.

Church leaders expectedly have been in a paroxysm of protest, claiming that they see with their own eyes that their churches are full every Sunday.  They should read columnist Solita Monsod’s fascinating computations that with only 37 percent of Filipinos attending Church weekly, the country’s 6,400 churches would still be filled up every Sunday.

There are several reasons for this surprising data.

While the SWS did not provide data on the demographics of Church attendance, similar studies elsewhere show that the decline in church attendance is steeper among those in their 20s and 30s.. This means that more of the young generation have become less religious or have found church attendance irrelevant to their lives.

One reason for this is that the younger generation has access to unbelievably more information than their parents, giving them rational tools to conclude that much of the kind of religiosity of the past is simply superstition or disguised materialism,  e.g. that one can convince the Deity to give him enough luck to win the lotto or be employed abroad.  In Scandinavian countries for instance where the level of prosperity and educational attainment are high, church attendance has plummeted to single digit-levels that many churches have been sold or leased to become trendy bars and bistros.

One reason for the decline in church attendance could be logically due to the rise of agnosticism and atheism.  I don’t think though that this is the main reason. Not too many Filipinos would embrace the idea that an afterlife is as much a myth as Peter Pan’s Neverland. Nor would they junk the very soothing conviction that Papa Jesus and Mama Mary are taking care of them in their adulthood and especially in their old age, just as their parents did when they were kids.

The decline in religiosity may not really be steep, deducing from the SWS data, and going by anecdotal evidence. Rather than being atheists or agnostics, a significant number of Catholics have instead joined home-grown religious movements which promise worldly prosperity and provide new forms of worshipping – among them, El Shaddai, Dating Daan, Jesus is Lord, the Kingdom of God movements.  With its  emphasis as a self-help organization, in which unemployed members are found jobs, the Iglesia ni Cristo  appears to be expanding fast, going by the ubiquitousness of their churches.

A major reason I suspect though for the drop in church attendance is because of the drastic changes for the reason for going there: the Mass.  Starting 1969, the so-called Tridentine or Roman Rite Mass decreed since 1570 was replaced by what is called the Mass of Paul VI, after the Pope who convened the Second Vatican Council that ordered the new mass.

There were two instances that jolted me into realizing how different the old mass was with present one. When I brought my late mother to a mall thinking that she would be more comfortable by hearing mass there, she scolded me and walked out angrily: “What kind of mass is this, in a mall?” She was right, it wasn’t a gathering of the faithful – as the mass is supposed to be – but of shoppers or would-be shoppers doing a chore that would spare them the penalty of a sin.

When instead of choirs, the Ateneo chapel had singers strumming on guitars singing “The Impossible Dream” or “Blowin in the Wind” during the mass, an elderly man beside me remarked sarcastically, “What’s this, a night club?”

Pope Paul VI, in his attempt to bring the mass “closer to the people” instead removed much of the solemnity, mystery, and sacredness – whether these were authentic or not – of the Tridentine Mass.

Ancient Latin was junked as its language. However, for example, the ancient “Dominus vobiscum” didn’t just mean “The Lord be with you,” but seemed to be sacred words that transported one’s consciousness to a divine realm.  It even got worse when the masses used Filipino. “Ave Maria” just doesn’t sound as divine as “Aba Ginoong Maria”. (And that even always distracted me as I couldn’t help wonder why “ginoong” and not “ginang”, and why “Aba”, which is a term of exclamation.)

It was my dalliance with Eastern meditative practices that I realized why the church was rather clever in using Latin in its mass for centuries in all countries.  In yoga, zen and all other eastern meditative disciplines, it is the stilling of the mind that is supposed to open one to the Divine, to nirvana, satori or whatever.  But the mind consists merely of internal, un-verbalized words.  So if you become absorbed in words (e.g., Hindu and Japanese) you don’t understand, especially if they are given rhythm as in yogic mantra and Zen chanting, the mind is stilled.  No wonder Gregorian singing and Tibetan Buddhist chanting have the same eerie effect on me.

Several other aspects of the new Catholic mass have really been turn-offs for modern Filipinos. That part when you’re supposed to give others a gesture of peace is a contrived, even hypocritical one. Evolution has hard-wired us to have our inviolable body-space, and we reserve prolonged linking of our body space with another only for loved ones.  Yet the mass often requires one to hold hands even with strangers for the two or three minutes as the “Our Father” is sung.

The Catholic mass has ceased to be a venue for simulating transcending one’s ego to feel that one is part of a greater whole, whether it is a community or a Divinity. Other religious movements have been able to simulate such a feeling of “oneness”, borrowing mainly from the techniques of the American Black Churches, where the faithful are gradually fired up to some kind of collective mass hysteria that they lose their ego, and recollect that experience later as their union with god.

Instead, the experience of the Mass now is as if watching the nth replay of an old movie, interrupted by somebody who hardly really knows what real life is, yet pontificating to his captive audience how he or she should live life.