In Diocese of Rochester, Mass attendance is gradually rising - Catholic Courier
A priest uses holy water to bless people in pews.

Father Steven Lape blesses the parishioners at Parish of the Holy Family in Gates May 28. (Courier photo by Jeff Witherow)

In Diocese of Rochester, Mass attendance is gradually rising

Slowly but surely, pews are filling back up at parishes across the Diocese of Rochester.

According to statistics provided by the diocesan Office of Pastoral Services, average Sunday-Mass attendance across all diocesan parishes rose by 10.5 percent between March 2022 and March 2023 (from 29,085 per week to 32,140). In addition, attendance rose 18 percent between Easter 2022 and Easter 2023 (from 48,638 to 57,416).

At Elmira’s Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish, Sunday-Mass attendance for March and April 2023 was 13.5 percent higher than for the same period in 2022.

“Over the past couple of months, I’ve seen people at Mass I haven’t seen in a long time,” noted Father Scott Kubinski, pastor.

He said the increases are largely due to parishioners feeling safer with respect to the coronavirus, combined with a longing to return to a full sense of church community.

“The people really want to get involved again,” Father Kubinski said. “I think people were ready for a post-COVID world.”

Yet despite attendance increases of the past year, there’s still a long way to go to reach pre-pandemic levels.

Diocesan statistics show that between January 2020 and the COVID lockdown implemented in March of that year, average Mass attendance at diocesan parishes was 42,933 per weekend. But the average for the first three months of 2023 was more than 25 percent lower at 31,147 per weekend in January, 30,868 in February and 32,140 in March.

“Some parishes are doing very well, but others have very low attendance,” Bishop Salvatore R. Matano noted in his March 2023 “From the Bishop” column in the Catholic Courier. “If churches are to remain open and viable, then Mass attendance by the parishioners is essential.”

Desire to gather plays into increased attendance

Following more than a year of dispensation due to the pandemic, the Sunday-Mass obligation (see related “Why Do Catholics?” story) was restored for Catholics of the Diocese of Rochester in June 2021. Since then, a key factor in getting people back to church, according to Father Michael Costik, has been encouragement of full and active participation at Mass.

“We’re all gathered. There’s something symbolically and fundamentally important about that,” remarked Father Costik, pastor of St. Benedict Parish in Canandaigua and Bloomfield, where average Sunday-Mass attendance rose 27.8 percent between April 2022 and April 2023.

“The belonging is critical,” agreed Bernard Grizard, who retired at the end of May as diocesan director of Pastoral Services. “There is a community need, which I feel at every parish where I go. People are saying it’s so good to be able to meet again.”

Also contributing to rising Mass attendance, Father Costik said, is his parish’s ongoing efforts in publicizing the National Eucharistic Revival — a three-year movement to restore understanding and devotion to the Eucharist in the United States.

Similarly positive movement is taking place at Parish of the Holy Family in Gates. Warm, friendly liturgies — along with an increase of social and spiritual activities — have spurred “positive word of mouth about what’s going on here,” said Father Steven Lape, pastor.

“People are being fed well,” added Father Lape, whose parish’s average Sunday-Mass attendance rose by 19.2 percent between April 2022 and April 2023.

Fathers Kubinski, Costik and Lape noted that for worshipers who still harbor concerns about exposure to COVID-19, some safety precautions — such as designated pews for social distancing and encouraging the wearing of masks — remain in place at their churches, whereas other COVID restrictions in those buildings have gradually been lifted.

Removal of pandemic-era habits help create path back to Eucharist

A number of diocesan parishes continue to offer Masses via livestream, as they did during the COVID lockdown. Among them is Most Holy Name of Jesus, where the 9 a.m. Sunday liturgy and some weekday Masses are livestreamed.

But as of mid-2023, Father Kubinski pointed out, livestreams are intended only for people who have serious health concerns or physically cannot attend Mass, and watching Mass online does not fulfill the Sunday obligation for those who are able to be at Mass.

During the period when the pandemic precluded attendance at public Masses, the chance to worship via computer or television was a vital way for Catholics to stay connected with their faith, Grizard observed. But today, he said, too many Catholics downplay or don’t fully grasp the importance of returning to Mass in person.

“People created other habits. There is a percentage of people still stuck in the new habit (of watching livestreamed Masses),” Grizard remarked. “Community is important. If you are Catholic, you have to be engaged, you have to come, you have to participate.”

Meanwhile, Father Lape pointed out that electronic devices cannot provide access to the Eucharist, which No. 1324 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the source and summit of the Christian life.”

“If we believe all that the church teaches about who is Jesus, and the Eucharist is the same Jesus, then why would we ever be absent?” Bishop Matano asked in a June 2021 Courier article.

In his March 2023 Courier column, the bishop added, “As we are now engaged in the Eucharistic Revival, I hope every parish has made increasing Mass attendance its first priority.”

Creative approaches needed to further boost Mass attendance

In order for Mass attendance to continue rising, Grizard said, “We still have to make more efforts in terms of evangelization, catechesis and outreach. We have to be creative.”

He suggested, for example, that parishes identify individuals and families they haven’t seen at church since the pandemic and reach out to them via phone, text or email to note that the parish misses seeing them in church and hopes they’ll be back soon.

At Parish of the Holy Family, Father Lape said a recent “Bring a Friend” weekend encouraged parishioners to invite people to Mass who do not normally attend. He added that the parish’s prayers of the faithful often include pleas for the return of Catholics who have stopped attending Mass.

Parishes in Rochester Diocese convey positive spirit to keep people coming back

How can parishes keep people coming back to Mass week in and week out?

Fathers Kubinski, Costik and Lape all attributed their parishes’ recent attendance increases to the uplifting parish environments that await all who enter their churches. Indeed, No. 2182 of the catechism describes Catholics’ Sunday obligation as more fulfilling than burdensome: “Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God’s holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

“There’s a wonderful, positive spirit involved,” Father Costik said. “We believe that what happens at Mass is the most wonderful thing that can happen.”

Tags: Catholic Beliefs, Faith Formation, Priests
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