The traditional Latin Mass seems to be on every Catholic’s mind right now, up to and including the pope’s. The recent motu proprio Traditionis Custodes restricting the celebration of the TLM has brought the topic to the forefront. Importantly, the pope’s actions presume the TLM is growing in adherents and influence in the Church. After all, if very few Catholics were going to this Mass, why would Francis take action?
But is this the case? Is TLM attendance growing? Most advocates of the TLM have assumed growth in recent months and years; Crisis Magazine even hosted a podcast in March titled, “Why is Traditional Catholicism Booming?” But the “fact” of traditional Catholicism growth was anecdotal—although many people were noting an increase in attendance at their TLM, there was no data to prove growth was happening.
To remedy this, Crisis Magazine surveyed U.S. parishes that offer at least one regularly scheduled TLM. We sought to determine any changes in their TLM attendance since January 2019. While we could have attempted to ascertain a longer history of TLM attendance, we wanted to focus on recent growth, while also establishing a baseline that predated COVID-19 restrictions. This would give a solid idea of the extent of any growth in recent years.
We first found a list of parishes offering the TLM at the Latin Mass Directory. Arguably the most comprehensive list available, it has been found to accurately reflect TLM parishes. The directory includes parishes that offer the TLM exclusively, as well as any parish that has at least one scheduled TLM—even if only monthly. This came to 658 parishes.
We then collected email addresses for these parishes. Not every parish shares an email address publicly on its website or in its bulletin, but we succeeded in collecting 416 email addresses. On July 12, 2021, we emailed each of these parishes asking them to fill out a brief 9-question survey. The deadline for responding was July 23, 2021.
When we sent out the survey, we did not know that right in the middle of the answer period would come Pope Francis’s motu proprio. Our original intention was to publish these results so that Church leaders and all Catholics could have a sense of the growth of this movement (or lack thereof) when making decisions about its future. Now, however, the survey results may be seen as a sort of “State of the TLM before Traditionis Custodes.” Time will tell how much these numbers will change in response to the papal decree.
An admitted weak point in our methodology is that the data is self-reported by parishes/pastors. It was not feasible for us to check response accuracy, but we do trust the answers the parishes provided.
We received 82 responses to the survey (92% of responses were received before the motu proprio was released). Parishes from 33 states responded. This is an excellent response rate (20%), representing 12% of all TLM-celebrating parishes over a broad geographical range. We feel this is a strong representative sample.
The survey first asked how often the parish celebrates the TLM. Fifty-two percent offer one TLM each Sunday, 33% offer more than one each Sunday, and 15% offer a TLM less frequently than every Sunday.
The next four questions were related to attendance. We asked what the attendance at the parish’s Sunday TLM was in the following months: January 2019, January 2020, January 2021, and June 2021, in order to assess trends over the 30-month time frame. Parishes were also asked to indicate if they didn’t offer a TLM during any of those months. One parish discontinued its TLM during the given time frame, and 16 parishes began offering the TLM after January 2019.
- In January 2019, the average attendance across 59 parishes with a Sunday TLM was 145.
- In January 2020, the average attendance across 61 parishes with a Sunday TLM was 163.
- In January 2021, the average attendance across 69 parishes with a Sunday TLM was 174.
- In June 2021, the average attendance across 75 parishes with a Sunday TLM was 196.
We see clear evidence of significant growth over the 30-month period.
First, the number of parishes offering the TLM increased (by 27% – see figure 1).
Further, the average number of parishioners at each TLM increased (by 34% – see figure 2).
Combine these two factors, and the overall TLM attendance across all parishes from January 2019 to June 2021 increased by 71% (see figure 3).
So at a time when general Mass attendance was decreasing, attendance at the TLM was dramatically increasing.
Nevertheless, TLM-attending Catholics still make up a very small minority in the Church. As noted, 658 parishes (pre-Traditionis Custodes) offer at least one TLM regularly. However, there are 16,702 total Catholic parishes in the United States, according to the most recent data. Thus, only 4% of parishes offer even one TLM on a regular (although not necessarily weekly) basis. In the ocean of American Catholicism, attendance at the TLM is still a small, albeit growing, bucket.
It’s clear that reports of TLM growth was not simply anecdotal, at least in the United States. It has been in fact growing at rates unheard of in the modern Catholic Church in the West.
Whether that rapid growth is a good or bad thing, of course, depends on your perspective.
[Photo Credit: Tracy Dunne]