Activist priest Fr. Robert Reyes and Msgr. Sabino Vengco offered these explanations to survey results showing “dwindling” numbers of Filipino Catholics hearing Mass over the past two decades.
A Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey in February found that only 37 percent of Catholics were going to church, a huge decline from 64 percent in 1991.
The survey also found that 9.2 percent of Filipino Catholics were considering leaving the Church.
“We’re hemorrhaging. It’s not massive blood loss but there’s blood loss. I see it; I experience it. The parishioners are losing faith, passion and interest in the Catholic Church. There’s something lacking that they can’t put their fingers on,” Reyes said by phone.
To say that the number of church-going Catholics was “dwindling” is inaccurate because the decline has been happening for years, said Vengco, who estimated that the figure would be less than 30 percent.
Both have explanations for some Catholics’ lack of interest in the Mass and not the least of these are “boring homilies.”
“Liturgies are rather bland and boring, and if the Liturgy is bland and boring, we have to wonder whether God is bland and boring. It has nothing to do with God; it has a lot to do with priests,” Reyes said.
Reyes said that a number of Catholics were also turned off by priests who preach too much about donating money to the Church or parishes that conduct “second collections” toward the end of the celebration. Some parishes do second collections in Sunday Masses year-round.
“This penchant for fundraising is taken negatively by the people. This should be looked into by the Church,” said Reyes, parish priest of the parishes of Transfiguration in Murphy, Cubao from 1992 to 1996, Holy Sacrifice on the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman from 1996 to 2003 and Miraculous Medal in Project 4 from 2003 to 2006—all in Quezon City.
Reyes acknowledged that priests were sometimes so caught up with their “sacramental duties” that they fail to prepare well for the homily and ensure that everything—from the choir and the sound system to the lighting and seats—is A-OK.
Vengco, a lecturer and professor of Systematic and Sacramental Theology at Loyola School of Theology and Carlos Seminary, agreed that some priests were presiding over the Eucharist “perfunctorily.”
“The way they preach is rather boring and not up to the demands of the listeners. So when it comes to preaching, that is one very negative factor. But we do have good preachers,” Vengco said.
It’s no surprise then that some turn to charismatic, Bible-based churches, where the service is vibrant, the pastors are more energetic, the homilies are more moving and the songs are livelier, Reyes said.
Vengco called this “religious migration,” which he said occurred after Catholics had compared notes on the celebrations in the Catholic Church and services in evangelical groups.
“Catholics are now exposed to charismatic, born-again and evangelical groups, and they can make comparisons,” Vengco said, even though he observed that this migration had “tapered off.”
The SWS finding that the 37 percent of the 1,200 respondents polled from Feb. 15 to 17 across the country confirmed going to church every week paled in comparison with the church-going members of Iglesia ni Cristo (70 percent), Protestants (64 percent) and other Christians (62 percent). Seventy-five percent of Muslims go to the mosque at least weekly.
The survey also found that 81 percent of the more than 90 million Filipinos were Catholics, 6 percent were Protestants, 3 percent were INC members and 3 percent were of other Christian denominations.
Compared with other groups, Catholics are the less devout, with only 29 percent saying they consider themselves very religious.
Several bishops and the communications chief of the Archdiocese of Manila disputed the survey results, pointing out that churches were filled to capacity every Sunday and parishes were being created every now and then.
Reading reports about sex abuses by priests, mostly in the United States and Europe in the papers or on the Internet, also affects the Catholics, Reyes said.
“A lot of Catholics are priest-centered. If the credibility and integrity of priests suffer because of the scandal, even if it happens elsewhere, lay people are affected. That is where the decline is coming from,” he said.
Vengco, who writes the column “Alalaong Baga” for Business Mirror every Thursday, agreed that this was a factor but not in the same degree as in the United States or Europe.
But otherwise, most Catholics are distracted by a number of things from going to Mass, Reyes said.
“There are so many distractions. They’d rather go to the mall or sleep. Committing a mortal sin is no longer a threat. People feel it’s not a sin. There’s a relaxation of the moral discipline that makes people think they’re sinning,” he said.
Reyes, now a Franciscan novice undergoing a yearlong “canonical year” in Liliw, Laguna province, also observed that some men had become “lazy” and church-going has been relegated to the women and children.
While serving as a parish priest in Project 4, Reyes observed that only 5 to 8 percent of the 140,000 residents were going to Sunday Masses.
“The church always looks full because of the sheer number of Catholics,” he said.
Vengco, however, pointed to some deeper reason behind all this: the Filipino’s “superficial religiosity.”
“We’ve been nominal Catholics sheer tradition since the Spanish period. It is never a case of conversion but rather political accommodation,” he said. “There is not enough depth in it. The Filipinos are satisfied with what is superficial.”
Reyes said the survey should prod Pope Francis to form a commission to “honestly assess what’s going on” and challenge parish priests to craft a pastoral “formation” program that would nourish the parishioners’ faith and craving for knowledge of the Scriptures.
Reintroducing the “missionary orientation” of the priests in communities and strengthening the basic ecclesial communities, a venue for parishioners to pray and share experiences around Bible passages, would help a lot, he said.
“Rather than stay in our desks, we should immerse ourselves in communities. People are craving for more personal, pastoral approach, rather than a business-like approach to ministry,” he said. “The only way we can start doing our work meaningfully is to create a lay partner to do the work and join him or her from time to time.”
Vengco said: “There’s a lack of spirituality among our priests. That’s why their marriage doesn’t come across to their listeners. We must be personal witnesses. As St. Augustine said, ‘Before anyone can touch others, you must yourself be touched by God.’”