Sunday evening Mass at Cathedral captures, engages youth

By Kenneth J. Souza

FALL RIVER, Mass. — While statistics suggest that the younger generation — especially the so-called “Generation Z,” or those born from the mid-1990s onward — are drifting away from the Church or even identify themselves as “nones” when it comes to religious affiliation, Father Thomas Washburn, O.F.M., rector of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption and pastor of the collective Catholic Community of Central Fall River, has found a way to engage this group and bring them back into the fold.

“Obviously the great challenge that we face as a Church is that we are losing that younger generation,” Father Washburn recently told The Anchor. “So we need to make a specific and targeted outreach to those younger people; to create a place in the Church that looks like them. Especially when sometimes they don’t feel like they have a place in the Church.”

To that end, last month Father Washburn began celebrating a special Youth Mass on Sunday evenings at 6 p.m. at St. Mary’s Cathedral that has “has already become one of the best-attended Masses at the cathedral on the weekend.”

“I would say that the only other community that rivals it is the Spanish,” Father Washburn said. “They have a really strong turnout every Sunday. But, other than that, it’s definitely the strongest English-speaking Mass at the cathedral now.”


Father Washburn has found that one of the keys to drawing in youth is to get them involved in all aspects of the Liturgy.

“The Mass has a very youthful face,” he said. “What I mean by that is, other than the priest, everyone involved is young. We have young people who are serving and reading and Eucharistic ministering and greeting and ushering — they are fulfilling all of the different roles.”

In addition, Father Washburn will tailor the messages of his weekly homilies to better address the concerns in their lives and instead of organ-based traditional hymns, the celebration uses contemporary Christian music performed with acoustic guitars which “is a little more opening and welcoming to younger people.”

“These are not competing styles; the beauty of our faith is in its diversity,” Father Washburn said. “And I love that — especially throughout the (Catholic Community of Central Fall River) collaborative, we have so many different (Liturgical) styles. They’re all beautiful, they’re all wonderful, and they all have an audience. One’s not better than the other. Each one is just appropriate for a different audience.”

Another reason for the popularity of the Youth Mass, according to Father Washburn, is that it fits better into their hectic weekend schedules.

“We remember the day when Sundays used to belong to the Church, specifically Sunday mornings,” he said. “All the stores were closed, everything was closed, and activities didn’t happen. But we know those days are gone and other things have slowly crept in.

“Today, the lives of our young people are busier than ever with all the different kinds of things and sporting events that they have going on. It’s just been my experience in different parishes that a Sunday evening Mass seems to hit that little sweet spot when they have a moment.”

Although it’s been designated as a “youth” Mass, Father Washburn has also seen older parishioners take advantage of the 6 p.m. Liturgy, too.

“We don’t card at the door, so it’s open to everybody,” he said. “I think it also finds a niche among people who maybe just have a busy weekend and need that last chance for Mass before the weekend’s over. So it serves that purpose as well.”

For Father Washburn, who became rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral on Oct. 31, 2018, it’s been particularly gratifying to see the growing numbers of people at Mass.

“Whenever I do an event, I always sort of have a number that I’d be happy with in my mind,” he said. “And I knew the first (Mass) would be well-attended because we directed all of the kids in our Faith Formation programs in the (Catholic Community of Central Fall River) to attend.

“But it’s been so uplifting to see the cathedral so full young people. The overall demographic of the cathedral as a parish tends to be a bit older, more so than other parishes. So just to see the cathedral full of so many young faces has just been really uplifting to everybody.”

Since the first Youth Mass on March 3, Father Washburn said they’ve been averaging between 100 and 150 attendees every Sunday night.

“I was conscious of the fact that this is something that we’d have to be actively building,” he said. “I thought if we had 25 to 30 the first week, that would be great and we can build from there. But since that time, it really seems to be finding its niche. And we haven’t lost that momentum from the first night, so it continues to be pulling in a good number of people.”

Now that he’s managed to get young peoples’ attention, Father Washburn said it’s important to keep things consistent every week.

“I think one thing that happens in some parishes is they don’t have it every week, or they only have it in certain seasons,” he said. “I’ve learned in my many years of Youth Ministry that you need to have a robust, reliable time every week. Otherwise, young people will be asking: ‘Is it this week or was it last week?’ When you have that reliable time, that’s helpful. And it really helps to establish the ‘regularness’ of it.”

On Palm Sunday, April 14, the 6 p.m. Youth Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral will be celebrated by Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V.

“Bishop da Cunha has supported this endeavor from its inception and so excited was he about it that he offered to come for the first Youth Mass,” Father Washburn said. “But I was a little nervous, not having any idea who would show up. I didn’t want to be in a position where we had the bishop and there were only five kids in the front pew. So I suggested he let us grow the congregation a little bit. So he thought that Palm Sunday would be a perfect day for him to come. Hopefully we’ll have a nice, full church for the bishop that day. As you know, he’s great with the young people — he’s very interactive and engaging with them.”

While Father Washburn is intent on maintaining consistency with the weekly Youth Masses, he did note it will not be celebrated on the following Easter Sunday, April 21.

“I’ve had these Masses in every parish that I’ve been in, and I just learned over the years that on Easter Sunday everybody goes in the morning with mom and dad, and then they’re off with family in the afternoon,” he said. “So that will be the one day that we’re not having it. But immediately the following Sunday, it will resume every week.”

For Father Washburn, the past and continued success of the Youth Mass cannot be attributed to any one thing — it’s really a matter of all the pieces fitting together.

“It’s a matter of hitting the right time that works in their schedules, making it clear that this is their time and their place and really maximizing the ways that they’re engaged because it invites them to be engaged on another level — to not just be a person sitting in the pew,” he said.

Not surprisingly, once they become active participants and take up that mantle of ministry, Father Washburn said the youth want to continue in those roles.

“We’ve already got a full list of young people who want to serve in all of those roles, and the thing that amazes me is that I’ll have morning Mass in one of the other churches and I’ll have altar servers who will come back for the 6 p.m. Mass to serve again,” he said. 

“They are maintaining their prior commitment, but they are also coming back to be part of the Youth Mass, as well. So now our challenge is just to maintain that momentum that we’ve started, and to see what we can do to reach out to other communities.”

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