Christmas in Church

This column is about religion, so please alert the American Civil Liberties Union. There may be some very offensive stuff coming up, and, God knows, the public should be protected.

When I was a kid, my parents usually took me to midnight Mass on Christmas. I think they did that so I would not get up at 5 in the morning looking for what Santa brought. If my dad was going to stay up past 10, there had to be a reason other than praising the Lord.

Anyway, my church was always packed back in the early 1960s, when only about 3 percent of the American population was not affiliated with a specific religion. Today, 13 percent say they are non-affiliated religiously, but still an overwhelming 78 percent of Americans profess to be Christians.

So you would think that on Christmas Day the churches would be packed with folks celebrating the birth of Jesus. Well, some of them will be, but many will be only half-full because, on any given Sunday, church attendance throughout the USA is bleak.

Let’s take my religion, Roman Catholicism. There are about 66 million American Catholics. But according to a study done at Georgetown University, just 22 percent of them attend weekly Mass. And that’s an obligation. The Church says you must go to Mass on Sunday, or it’s a sin. Long ago, when the nuns held me captive in St. Brigid School, missing Mass was a huge deal. Apparently, not anymore.

So what’s going on? There is no question that secularism is on the rise in America, and the media are happy about it. Openly religious people like Tim Tebow are mocked. You are quickly branded a zealot if you talk up your faith in public. But if you act like one of Caligula’s running buddies, you are glorified as cool and with it. South Beach is in; Lourdes is out — assuming you actually know what Lourdes is.

But the churches themselves have to share some of the blame. Too often, the person preaching at the pulpit does not have much to say, especially to younger people who are looking for life guidance. I mean, St. Paul had the Corinthians mesmerized, but that was before the Internet, cable and BlackBerrys. Paul had the stage to himself. Not much competition in ancient Syria.

Today, the challenge is to get the attention of the faithful, and that takes some doing. Christmas seems to be a good place to start. Jesus changed the entire world in fewer than 35 years. How did the guy do it? Talk about a great narrative. What did a baby born into poverty possess that persuaded billions all over the world to believe in his philosophy?

That’s something to think about on the birthday of the most influential man who ever lived.