For better or for worse, in our age the Church finds herself in a posture of severe self-examination. We see around us everywhere in the western world a decline in participation in the sacramental life of the Church, and the personal affiliation of the majority of people under 50 is the famous “none.” Anyone reading this who has participated in a parish council meeting in the last 30 years or our own Diocesan Synod knows the inevitable topic: Why are so many simply drifting away from faith and the Sunday Mass entirely?

There are any number of answers to this, many of them true as far as they go. Changing social norms and expectations that are hostile to the faith, material prosperity which makes faith seem superfluous, scandal within the Church, and on and on. The noxious brew of apostasy has many ingredients.

And while we should never see any program, catchphrase or approach at outreach to our fallen-away brothers and sisters as the “magic bullet” or “the next best thing that will save the Church,” whatever sincere and devout attempts to reconcile our neighbor with the Church should be encouraged. For ourselves — faithfully clinging to the barque of Peter even amidst these tempestuous times — let us be clear and without doubt what we are principally about.

When I was in seminary, I came across a book in the library called “Parish Priest” by French priest Father Eugène Masure. The author immediately made a point in the book that struck this reader squarely between the eyes. Right at the beginning he asks the question: “For what purpose, firstly and above all, does a parish exist?”

Father Masure distills it perfectly: Every parish exists to be the place where a specific community is brought into the worship of the all-holy, triune God. The parish, and all its ancillary activity, centers around the worship of God. Period. And of course, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the locus of this worship. But it should also encompass every short visit we make to the church, every meeting that takes place there; the religious education and all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy performed by its congregation are meant to redound in union with the Mass to the worship and glory of God.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) knew this reality when he wrote, “The Church stands or falls with the liturgy. The true celebration of the sacred liturgy is at the center of any renewal of the Church” (my emphasis).

Father Daniel Cardó, commenting on this line from Cardinal Ratzinger, said, “The key point here is the priority of God and, therefore, the problem of faith. Believers, and the world, need a real encounter with God.”

Too often we fall into the trap of thinking the Church is a company or a business in need of better marketing and publicity, as if that would solve the problem of people drifting away. What I fear we too often underestimate is the real depth of the crisis of our time: that the vast majority of people leaving the faith of their fathers is not because of any perception of how “welcoming” the Church is, but because they simply find belief itself impossible. There are too many obstacles in the way to an encounter with the living God. They no longer believe, and so in honesty they no longer participate in the life of the Church.

Taking our cue from Cardinal Ratzinger, we would do well to truly examine whether our parish liturgies reflect the reality that we are there, first of all, to worship God. Is the whole work of the Sunday Mass like a clear window through which we can see that something wholly unworldly and transcendent is happening? Or does it distract and feel like a mere expression of ourselves and our littleness?

People are spiritually starving in our world today. People need something from our parishes that they cannot get anywhere else or from any other activity: an encounter with God that leads to worship. That’s what our parishes are for.

—Father Steven Marchand is administrator of St. Peter Parish in Vergennes and St. Ambrose Parish in Bristol.

—Originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.