It is that time of the year, in the UK anyway, where parishes have to submit a host of statistics to their diocesan offices and presumably these are later collated on a national basis. Such things as the numbers of baptisms, weddings and funerals are included together with an estimate of the Catholic population in the parish. The latter must be very difficult to ascertain as many people move around on Sundays to Mass times that suit them and their busy lives. On one occasion when I had to complete the figures on behalf of a parish, I telephoned the Vicar General to establish how we should calculate this. He gave me a formula – multiply the Mass attendance by 4 as around a quarter of Catholics attend Mass on Sunday!
It struck me that this was neither very scientific nor accurate and it led me to wondering what actually happened with these statistics and what they were used for. Then it occurred to me, does it matter and I went on to as the question – Did Jesus care about numbers?
In the Gospel of Matthew following the death of John the Baptist, Jesus tries to find a quiet place to pray, but he is followed by a vast crowd. As evening drew in, the disciples wanted to send the people away to find food, but Jesus instructs them, ‘You feed them’ (Matt 15:16). All they have is five loaves and two fishes. For Jesus, this small amount is more than sufficient; after blessing the food, 5,000 men together with their families are fed and afterwards, 12 baskets of scraps are collected. The numbers were not a problem to Jesus.
The five loaves might represent the five books of Moses; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy often called the Torah. The two fish may represent the two ways in which we consume Jesus in Holy Mass, by digesting the Word of God and receiving the Eucharist. They may also represent the faithful, those who have been caught or harvested for the Lord.
No doubt there are many other theological explanations but perhaps also the whole episode is really a reminder that ‘where two or three meet in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matt 18:20). For this reason, we should worry much less about the declining numbers at Mass and the apparent lack of priestly vocations and concentrate on the words of St Therese of Lisieux by ‘doing the little things with great love’.