Faithful Catholics in America have long lamented the dreadful Mass attendance numbers of the past half century. In 1970, 55% of American Catholics attended Mass; by 2019, that number had dropped to little over 20%. It’s clear that most self-identifying Catholics don’t think it’s obligatory, or even beneficial, to participate in the “source and summit” of the Catholic Faith on a regular basis. Going into 2020, however, who knew that we’d soon be looking at that 20% attendance with nostalgia.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate recently released its figures regarding Mass attendance in 2020. It’s as bad as you suspect. Starting in March (ahem), the percentage of Catholics attending Mass plummeted from its already-pathetic 20% to around 5%.
This isn’t surprising, as every single diocese in America forbade public Masses starting in March. However, even after many dioceses opened up (albeit with many COVID-19-related restrictions in place), the number increased to only about 10% by the end of the year. Even Christmas, which is the most heavily-attended Mass each year and in 2019 saw 64% of Catholics attending, reached only 20% attendance in 2020. In other words, attendance at the most popular Mass of the year only reached the level of an average Sunday in June in previous years.
The question that currently hovers over every chancery and rectory in America is this: will they ever come back? Will the Catholic Church in America see a return to pre-2020 numbers, which were already quite dreadful, but weren’t as catastrophic as now? No one knows the answer to that question, but I don’t think Church leaders should have high hopes.
As I’ve detailed elsewhere, the Catholic Church in America was facing a demographic collapse before the Age of Covid. Since 2000, the number of infant baptisms—one of the best indicators of the health of the Church—has plummeted more than 40% after it had remained relatively steady from 1975-2000. And there were no signs that this trend was reversing before 2020. Now add to that the following realities: (1) our bishops, whether intentionally or unintentionally, have signaled to the world that attending Mass is “non-essential;” (2) lifelong Mass-going habits have now been broken; and (3) many parishes are so vigorous in their COVID-19-restrictions that they’ve become less welcoming than an East German Stasi house call. Add it all up, and you’ve got a recipe for empty churches.
So how should the Church respond? First, let’s recognize that the problem is much deeper than the past year’s restrictions. The shutdowns and restrictions didn’t cause, but revealed the reality many wanted to ignore: most Catholics have little more than a cultural attachment to the faith. Calls to attend Mass, give to the collection basket, or in any way conform oneself to the faith fall on deaf ears today. Whereas in the 1940’s even the smallest statement from the Church was a roar in the culture, now even the loudest commandments register as barely a whisper in the ears of most Catholics.
In other words, the Church is no longer like the old British Empire, able to stride across the world like a colossus. Instead she is more like today’s Britain, struggling to have any impact on the world stage. She needs to realize this and act accordingly. This means that every aspect of Church life must be reimagined for this new age; the old “normal” will never return.
First, failing parishes must be closed. Simply put, in most dioceses there are far too many parishes for the number of practicing Catholics today. Forcing priests to cover 4-6 geographically spread-out parishes (as is becoming increasingly common) instead of closing most of those parishes clings to the notion that one day those failing parishes will recover. They won’t. Better to make the few lay faithful left drive a little farther to attend Mass than to burn out the few priests remaining out of wistful nostalgia for better days. And of course, it’s important to close the dying parishes, not the ones that are growing but aren’t necessarily ideologically aligned with the chancery bureaucrats. (And it would be far better to raze a dozen ugly suburban parishes than one beautiful historic urban church.)
Secondly, a complete rethinking of the status quo—a status quo that’s been in place for over fifty years now—is needed. For example, Church leaders need to take a more combative attitude against our prevailing culture. For decades the hierarchy by and large has given its blessing (or at least a wink and a nod) at every destructive cultural trend. This includes refusing to fight against the growing view that people are primarily vectors of contagion rather than images of God. In the early Church, one of the primary ways the faith grew was the witness of the Christians in times of plague. When the pagans were (literally) running for the hills, the Christians would enter the cities to care for the sick and dying. Their witness led many to see that this new religion was vastly different from the dying pagan religions: it was full of courage and vigor. Does anyone really say this about Catholicism today?
As Fr. Joseph Ratzinger famously predicted decades ago, “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.” This is the church age we are now entering, and we need to act like it. The longer we try to hold on to the status quo, the more difficult it will be to begin the work of re-evangelization. And although the Catholic Church in America is experiencing a death right now, we were founded on the promise of a future resurrection.
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