Where did all the worshipers go? - Catholic Courier

Where did all the worshipers go?

In her travels, diocesan pastoral-planning liaison Deborah Housel regularly encounters people who believe declining Mass attendance and the closing of churches are strictly local issues.

But in reality, the Rochester Diocese has plenty of company — regionally, nationally and internationally.

Telling statistics can be found just in the three dioceses that border Rochester. In Syracuse, officials announced plans in 2007 to ultimately close 40 churches; in Buffalo, the number of churches dropped from 275 to just over 200 between 2005-07 alone; and in Scranton, Pa., plans were announced earlier this year to close 39 churches.

Disgruntled Catholics in Scranton and Buffalo have joined a coalition that formally petitioned the Vatican earlier this year to intervene regarding massive closings there and in Allentown, Pa.; Boston; Cleveland; New Orleans; New York City; and Springfield, Mass. Notably, seven of those eight cities are in the northeastern United States, symptoms of a general population shift by Catholics to southern states. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, the Catholic population of New York state decreased by 7 percent between 1990 and 2008, but rose by 9 percent in Texas, 8 percent in California, 5 percent in Arizona and 4 percent in Florida.

These figures signal the end of an era when large numbers of parishes were established to serve the spiritual needs of European natives moving to the northeastern U.S., said Bernard Grizard, diocesan director of Parish Support Ministries.

“The (European) immigrant church is gone. The needs are completely different,” he stated.

Karen Rinefierd, diocesan pastoral-planning liaison, pointed out that gauging the number of practicing Catholics in any area is tricky because a person’s decision to declare him or herself Catholic on a census doesn’t give any indication of that individual’s level of involvement in church life. Yet declines also are evident in more concrete statistics: In addition to a 25-percent decrease in Sunday-Mass attendance across the Rochester Diocese from 2000-08, the number of recorded baptisms and marriages each fell off by approximately 50 percent between 1994 and 2007.

Nationwide, meanwhile, a CARA poll reported that the percentage of U.S. Catholics saying they rarely or never attend Mass increased from 25 percent to 32 percent between 2002 and 2008. And, according to a study released in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, U.S. residents who have left Catholicism now outnumber those who have joined the Catholic Church by nearly a four-to-one ratio.

Some of these declines can be attributed to lingering effects of the priestly sexual-abuse crisis, with several polls indicating a significant drop in church attendance at the scandal’s peak earlier this decade. Rinefierd also observed that a comparative laxity about religious observances has set in. Just a few decades ago, she noted, stores commonly were closed on Sundays, and missing Sunday Mass was widely accepted to be a mortal sin.

Catholics are not alone in their struggles, according to the American Religions Identification Survey (ARIS) by Trinity College. While the survey found the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. population had declined from 26.2 percent to 25.1 percent between 2000 and 2008, it also showed mainline Protestants had declined from 18.7 percent to 12.9 percent of the population, while the number of those who said they’re not affiliated with any religion shot up from 8.2 percent to 15 percent.

Declining trends in Mass attendance in Europe — where several countries boast populations that nominally are at least 90 percent Catholic — are even more pronounced. According to a 2005 article in The Boston Globe, the percentage of Catholics who attend Mass regularly in several German, French, Italian and Irish dioceses had fallen as low as 20 percent and was even in the single digits in some places. Pope Benedict XVI has often stated that the threat of secularism to the western Catholic Church is among the greatest challenges facing his papacy.

Yet Grizard, for one, expressed hope during these trying times, saying these challenges are among many the Catholic Church has faced in its 2,000-year history.

“We’ll figure it out,” he said. “It’s not a time for panic.”

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