In a Christmas mass, I sat in a church full of people of all ages, young families, children of all ages and people of all ages. It felt incredible, and it is beyond words to explain the feelings.
It reminded me of the Catholic churches in India, Nepal, Hong Kong, where I used to live, and Bangladesh, where I was born. I’ve noticed in those countries that Catholic churches are usually filled throughout the holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and they are seldom as empty as I’ve seen in the United Kingdom.
I was curious as to why those who attended the Christmas service did not return in the same numbers on regular Sundays services. I honestly don't know each person’s answers and reasons for not attending church regularly, but I do know they admire and love the church, as evidenced by their attendance at the Christmas service. Christmas must still retain a special place in their hearts and minds, or perhaps the family traditions they grew up with. For some, work commitments prevent them from attending church regularly. But for sure, I want to focus on something that the church is missing here.
The synodal process is ongoing, and church leaders are missing the point about these missing families and the reasons and ways the church has failed them.
An ex-Catholic, a distinguished professor of psychology who is now an atheist, once shared with me that she grew up as a Catholic and had memories of going to Mass with family in a predominantly Catholic part of the United Kingdom. When I asked her what led her to leave the Church, she gave me a lengthy list. Among them was the handling of child sexual abuse. In her words, Church leadership hypocrisy and criminality left her wounded and appalled, compelling her to leave. I witnessed someone who was really upset, and, unsurprisingly, I’ve met several people who used to be Catholic but now despise the word Catholic.
Let me bring you back to those missing families. I have heard from parents of wider Christian society, not only Catholic. Parents have shared with sadness that their children were bullied by their peers because they are Christian. Some children want to keep it secret that they are Christian and do not share with their peers in fear of being bullied. In post-Christian Britain, it is no longer fashionable, and individuals who openly declare to be Christians are looked down upon. A Catholic mother once told me that her 15-year-old son said to her that he was the only one in my class who attends Mass, and it felt lonely.
In the last 50 years, a movement in culture and socioeconomic structure has cast doubt on the church’s authority, and some structural elements seek to destroy the church. However, the question remains as to what the Catholic church authorities have done to help families, youth, and children who love the church in the face of adversity.
The synodal process, in my view, must listen to young people, especially those who are teenagers, those who come to church and who used to come and do not come to church anymore. The Church must make a concerted effort to meet young people where they are and listen to their concerns.
In different parts of the United Kingdom, the churches are regularly attended by the faithful elderly Catholics, and many of them are dying. I met a few Catholics who shared their concerns with great sadness, concerns about our families and what will happen to our churches in the next twenty years.
There are shortages of priests in many Catholic churches, and many priests are getting older and very few young people are becoming a priest. I remain puzzled by this crisis. I ask myself what went wrong with the Catholic church in the United Kingdom.
I would like to say that the Catholic church in the United Kingdom has lost its connection with those missing families and young people. The synodal process must refocus and re-establish its relationship with them, and there is a need for reconciliation. Most importantly, the Catholic Church’s priority should be to listen to its young people of all ages, and the synodal process has so far failed to do so.
William Gomes is a British Bangladeshi freelance journalist and human rights activist based in York, North Yorkshire.