Sunset in the West

What a senescent society looks like

In a country with a religious heritage as passionate, broad-based, and, most importantly, voluntary as America’s, the composition of a typical Sunday service seems as good an indicator as any of the true health of the nation. In my slightly biased view, church attendance is a sign of both a healthy spiritual awareness, and, even more importantly, a belief in the future. People obsessed with their current material or personal status do not tend to be religious, and they especially do not take time out of their daily routines to acknowledge something higher than themselves. Added to the “social capital” that all good government concentrators know churches produce, robust attendance at Sunday service is a sign of a society’s vitality and general cohesiveness.

It was with this in mind that I surveyed the Roman Catholic Church I attended in Brooklyn during a few weeks in July and August. The church itself is a rather typical example of nineteenth century urban Catholic Church architecture—to my city-bred eyes it was beautiful, functional, and familiar. The church’s name, St. Mary Star of the Sea, is so bland as to give it the feeling of an “every church.” While located in Brooklyn it could just as easily be in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, or Chicago. The wood of the pews gives off that comforting sense of having been used, and one can almost feel the prayers of those pitiable nineteenth century immigrants that once sat here. There are plaques and statues to “St. Mary’s boys” who died in both world wars, and yellow ribbons supporting those parishioners currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, this could be virtually any parish in North America.

Now granted, when I attended services at St. Mary’s it was the middle of a very hot summer, and the usual ranks of worshippers might have been depleted by the heat, the humidity, and the lurid call of more temperate climes. Nevertheless, the service I went to, supposedly the busiest of the morning on a perfectly beautiful day, had no more than one hundred attendees. One hundred attendees in a space built for—and I’m sure previously well used by—well over a thousand. And of those hundred souls, no more than a handful were under the age of 30; I was among the two or three youngest in attendance. White hair, canes, and motorized scooters were the norm for these parishioners. There were, of course, no altar boys, and the priest went about his business morosely, as if the mass were just a chore to be gotten through.

For me the lingering and haunting image of the morning was of an assembly of worshippers barely able to make its way up the aisle to receive communion. The people who had managed to gather, ostensibly to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, were not jubilant but old, weak, infirm, and worst of all, unenthusiastic. The image I saw that day—the image of a civilization in its twilight—is difficult to bear on its own, but is made doubly more so when contrasted with the images of vitality we see across much of the rest of the world. Congregations in the third world are immeasurably poorer than our own, and they certainly have better excuses for not going to service, but it is they, and not us, that approach their faith with seriousness, devotion, and, most importantly, joy.

I’m constantly amazed that our current long-running demographic suicide hasn’t attracted more alarm or, failing that, at least more attention. Pope Benedict’s recent comments on the “dying” churches in the West haven’t even drawn scorn but only apathy; no one even bothers to respond to such critiques anymore. I won’t pretend to know exactly where a depopulation of churches unprecedented since the Black Death or the collapse of Rome will lead us, but I imagine it will be something like what I saw during those summer days in Brooklyn: a West eager to keep up its old habits but increasingly unable to do so because of its feebleness.

Mark A. Adomanis ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Eliot House.