Turnout Still Falling at Masses

By Dan Horn
Cincinnati Enquirer
September 20, 2010

Almost two out of three Catholics in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky won't go to church this weekend to celebrate Mass, an event they have been told since childhood is the center of their spiritual lives.

The church's most recent count of people in the pews found that about 290,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and 60,000 in the Diocese of Covington skip Mass in a typical week.

The annual attendance count begins again next month, but church officials don't expect dramatic improvement.

Mass attendance has been falling steadily for decades across the country as a growing majority of Catholics find other things to do on Sundays, from shuttling their kids to soccer games to hitting the snooze button and sleeping in.

The reasons for the decline have been debated for years, with fingers pointed at busier schedules, a changing culture and discontent with Catholic leaders.

But whatever the explanation, the absence of so many Catholics from the most important gathering of their faith is a major challenge for the church.

"There are serious problems, structural problems, all up and down the line," said William D'Antonio, who has studied Mass attendance for almost 25 years at the Catholic University of America. "If you're asking what are the future trends, they're bleak."

Not everyone is so pessimistic, but bishops and priests recognize the trend is headed in the wrong direction. Mass attendance fell by about 41,000 in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in the past decade and by about 7,000 in the Diocese of Covington - a drop of almost 20 percent for each diocese.

According to last year's attendance count, 62 percent of the 468,000 Catholics who are registered at parishes in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and 67 percent of the 89,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Covington will not go to Mass on any given week.

D'Antonio said national surveys he's conducted since 1987 show sharp generational differences, with older Catholics attending Mass far more often than younger Catholics. He said just 20 percent of Catholics born after 1978 regularly attend Mass.

"I do see the value in it, but it's just not for me right now," said Dani Patton, 26, a Mount Adams resident who was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools but now rarely attends Mass. "I still feel Catholic because I was so engaged in it growing up. But I don't feel aligned with it any more."

D'Antonio said unless young Catholics such as Patton can be brought back into the fold, attendance will keep falling as the older, church-going generations fade away.

The result could be devastating for parishes, which would lose not only people, but also spiritual and financial support for schools, food pantries and other activities that have defined Catholic churches for centuries.

"There's an entire generation of Catholics that kind of lost their sense of what is right and wrong, of what it is to be a Catholic," said the Rev. Geoff Drew, pastor of St. Maximilian Kolbe church in Liberty Township. "Mass is not optional. It's an obligation."

A 'culture clash'

Mass attendance is a big deal in the Catholic Church because the ritual is more than just a celebration. It's the centerpiece of the faith.

Mass is where Catholics, through Holy Communion, receive the bread and wine that they believe becomes the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Catholics are taught that this is not a symbolic gesture - as it is in some Protestant faiths - but that Christ is physically present.

The church teaches that it's a sin for Catholics to miss the ritual unless they are ill or incapacitated.

And yet thousands do just that every week, raising concerns about how well Catholics understand - or how strongly they believe - one of the most important teachings of their faith.

"People in general don't understand what Mass is for," Drew said.

"If people really believed that they were receiving Jesus Christ and experiencing Jesus Christ in a very personal way, our churches would be packed on Sunday."

The churches once were packed. A Gallup poll 60 years ago found that 75 percent of Catholics said they attended Mass in the past seven days, compared to 45 percent today.

Church leaders and researchers say the trend is driven by a combination of cultural and social forces, as well as the church's failure to prepare its people for the elimination of the Latin Mass and other changes following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

The clergy abuse scandal also hurt, but the drop in Mass attendance was under way long before the crisis erupted eight years ago.

The explanation cited most often for falling attendance is an increasingly secularized society that emphasizes individualism over community.

"For Catholics, in our history, going to Mass wasn't considered some kind of personal choice. It was what we did. It was expected," said Dennis Doyle, a religious studies professor at the University of Dayton. "In our culture today, people want to choose everything.

"There's something of a culture clash between traditional Catholic beliefs and behavior, and the contemporary, consumerist culture."

Faith and entertainment

The role of the church in the social lives of Catholics also is waning. In the first half of the 20th century, the local parish was the hub of social activity for Catholics, many of whom were poor, working-class immigrants shunned by the rest of society.

Today, however, Catholics tend to be as educated and wealthy as Americans of any other faith. They don't rely as much on the church because they don't have to.

"For years, Catholics were second-class citizens, outcasts," said the Rev. Bob Farrell, pastor at St. Susanna in Mason. "Now, Catholics are in the mainstream. We don't have a lot of the struggles we had in the past, when the church was everything."

He said being in the mainstream means Catholics have more options - some would say distractions - that lessen the church's role in people's lives. That, in turn, leads to a more casual attitude toward attending Mass.

The church also struggles, as many religions do, to hold on to young people who are born into the faith but drift away in their twenties and thirties.

Patton said that was her experience when she went to college and, later, when she lived overseas for almost a year. After living among other cultures and faiths, she began to fall away from the church of her upbringing and the notion that she needs a religious service to have a relationship with God.

Despite her reservations about Catholicism now, Patton said she doesn't expect or want the church to abandon its traditions to appeal to young people.

"I understand why they are the way they are," she said of church teachings. "I don't expect it to change for me."

Young adults like Patton, who still considers herself a spiritual person, are part of a growing population known as "seekers." They have not abandoned God, but they are looking for a faith or a place to worship that suits them better.

They also are more likely to question the church's stance on issues such as birth control and the all-male priesthood.

Some turn to megachurches, such as Crossroads and Vineyard Community Church, where services feature energetic sermons and multimedia presentations with theater-sized movie screens. Catholic priests say that sort of celebration is fine, but it's not part of the Catholic Mass.

Without the ritual and tradition, they say, the Catholic Mass ceases to be Catholic.

"You bring coffee. You have stadium seating. It's like going to a movie. It's a show," Drew said. "That's not what the Roman Catholic Mass is about. We live in this entertainment society, but that's not what Mass is for. Mass is for us to entertain God."

The ritual's appeal

Catholic leaders say the church doesn't need bells and whistles to compete. They say the very ritual that some see as outdated and rigid may be the church's best selling point. After 2,000 years, they say, the church has stood the test of time and its teachings should not be cast aside to chase the latest fad.

"I've talked to many who come to the Catholic Church for the strong sense of ritual and tradition," said Karen Kane, director of the archdiocese's worship office. "It does have meaning in their lives. It's not just an obligation."

She said the church is doing all it can to increase attendance within the framework of those rituals and traditions. Archbishop Dennis Schnurr has said he wants to establish a "culture of vocations" in which lay Catholics as well as priests heed God's call to a special purpose and feel a greater connection to their parish and the Mass.

He has encouraged pastors to foster a welcoming atmosphere and to connect the church's ancient teachings to parishioners' lives in the world today.

Priests also are urged to pay attention to detail: Is the music good? Do they deliver their homily well? Does the church look and feel like a church, or a reception hall?

"Never underestimate the aesthetics," said the Rev. Eric Knapp, a Jesuit priest and pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church in downtown Cincinnati. "It helps."

Knapp said his church has revitalized itself in the past few years by blending hospitality, social activities and community outreach with a traditional Catholic message. Mass attendance is up from 1,000 to 1,300, baptisms are up from 12 to 60 a year and weekly collections have climbed from $5,700 to $11,000.

The church has gotten younger, too. The average age of parishioners has fallen from 60 to 50 in just a few years, thanks in part to young people who are finding their way back to Mass.

"There is room for those who are curious, those who are taking baby steps to explore their spirituality," Knapp said. "The bottom line is, if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten."


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