There are many wonderful things about traveling around the country. One of my favorites is attending Mass at all different kinds of churches with many different ways of doing things. Most often I am pleasantly surprised at how some churches operate, but a few times I have been shocked.
Recently, I was visiting a friend for the weekend and we went to Mass at a parish in Southern California neither of us were familiar with. This parish was very traditional - there were big signs outside about dress code, the priest gave a homily about abortion, quoting the Catechism, and the altar servers were wearing many robes. I did not notice anything that I had not seen or heard before until the Eucharistic prayer came along.
"And looking up to heaven, to you, his almighty Father, he gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples,"
"This is my body which will be given up for you."
There are two ushers walking down the aisle, both with their backs to the altar, each with one of those little silver 'people-counters' someone would use at an event - such as a sporting event or a place with a maximum capacity. The clicking continues throughout the Eucharistic prayer.
It is immediately apparent... They are counting their numbers during the most important moments of the most important thing we do. And I struggle to focus because I am in disbelief. When did the Eucharist become about numbers?
I went to one of the ushers afterward to see if my inference was correct, and he indeed responded, "We're just checking numbers for attendance." Every parish certainly needs people to attend Mass to function as an organization, but I found the time they chose to count their turnout to be very symbolic.
I talk to remarkable, selfless people who run all types of programs in their parish ministries, youth ministries, and college ministries all the time. Many of them are often rightfully discouraged because nobody seems to be showing up. These wonderful ministers and volunteers have trouble feeling like they are making any difference in their community when 8 people come to the night they worked so hard to prepare for, or when 3 teens show up to a Bible study they have gone out of their way to make happen. Low attendance can be so disheartening, and it can take our focus quickly away from what really matters and cause us to quickly forget why we work so hard as ministers.
But this moment in Church brought me right back to the simple truth...It is not about the numbers and it will never be about the numbers. It is always about Christ.
If you are one of the discouraged, one of the ones who cannot help but count attendance and let that be a reflection of the difference you as an individual are making for the Kingdom...remember that the ones who do show up need you to show them Jesus. Each college student, each parishioner, each teen who shows up, even if it is just one...to that one person you may be the only opportunity in their life for someone to show them Christ and teach them about the King who died for them. You could truly be it. It is like the story about the man throwing the starfish on the beach back into the ocean. "Why would you waste time doing that, there are way too many, you will never get them all," a man scoffed at him. "Yes, but it matters to this one," he says, as he throws them back in, one by one.
Our beautiful faith is not about a turnout, but a Savior whom each and every single person in this world needs to hear of and learn about.
If you are one of the disheartened today or any day, take heart when the numbers may be low, for Jesus said it to us himself,
Where two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst of them. Matthew 18:20