Where have all the people gone, long time passing...

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Each week our parish website includes a column by Bernard Swain, Ph.D.: Cross Currents: A Catholic Reflects on Faith in Our Times. Swain holds a doctorate in theology and speaks on a variety of issues in addition to facilitating parish leadership groups. His most recent essay offers some sobering statistics:
The Critical Mass

Does no one care about the future of our parishes? Whoever does better start paying attention, because everywhere I go in my parish work I see the trouble signs.

I see not just fewer priests, but also smaller staffs and more part time people. I see not just “we depend on the same old faces all the time,” but also fewer faces that are actually older now, and I see ministries shrinking or even closing.

I see not just a parish leadership under fire, but also a demoralized leadership.

I see not just their struggle against their many challenges, but also their struggle to maintain hope amid parish closings, diocesan bankruptcies and a vague impression of widespread defections from Catholic life.

Of course, some parishes are growing, even dramatically in some cases. But the general trends are unmistakable: while there are more baptized US Catholics than ever before, the percentage of active Catholics has declined steadily. Assuming the minimum requirement for any “active” Catholic is regular Mass attendance, the startling fact is that over the last 40 years Mass attendance has fallen from as much as 75 % of all U.S. Catholics to between 15—20%, sometimes even lower. As late as 1970, Catholic church-going was up to three times as high as Protestant church-going, but now Catholics attend church at the same rate as most Protestants—and even less than in some evangelical Protestant churches.

This troubling trend holds true even for growing parishes.

In every forum I visit, I make the point that this is not a sign of lost faith. In fact, in most places the number of Catholics seeking baptism, first communion, and confirmation continues to grow. Obviously millions of people who do not attend Mass still see themselves as Catholics. But their connection to Church is mainly through the sacraments, not through the liturgy.

This shift to the sacraments from the liturgy is a two-edged phenomenon. On the one hand, it’s a sign of hope that millions of stay-at-home Catholics are still, nonetheless, Catholics in some sense. On the other hand, such Catholics demand the sacramental services their families seek from the Church without contributing much to support the Church’s operation. They’re not putting money in the basket or volunteering to help minister to other parishioners’ needs.

So as the percentage of church-going “liturgical” Catholics shrinks and the percentage of stay-at-home “sacramental” Catholics grows, parishes possess fewer and fewer of the resources (of time, talent, and treasure) needed to manage their mission.

This is a recipe for failure.

At some point, the available resources become just too meager: the active people feel increasingly overworked and overextended, underappreciated, and demoralized. Budgets, as well as people, get strained past the breaking point. Parish operations grow increasingly dysfunctional, and eventually the system begins to break down.

The truth is, parish life simply cannot be sustained without a “critical mass” of active parishioners. And getting people to Mass is critical to sustaining this critical mass!

The obvious question is: what are parishes doing to get people back to church? In the parishes I see and hear about, the answer is: virtually nothing.

I encourage you to read the whole article at HolyFamilyConcord.org. (On the menu after clicking on "What's Happening") What's your experience of numbers at Sunday Mass? How does it compare to your earlier experience? What do you think are the reasons for this drop in attendance? How might we encouarge others to return and join us on for Sunday worship? Are you among the missing? Would you share with us why you are absent? what might draw you back?

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