According to a recent study by Gallup, which has tracked Mass participation in American Catholics since 1955, attendance at Sunday Mass has fallen to an all-time low across age groups. The poll consisted of a simple question: Has the interviewee attended a church service in the past seven days?
In 1955, 75% of Catholics surveyed indicated that they had attended Mass sometime in the previous seven days. The recent study, carried out from 2014-17, revealed that only 39% of had recently attended weekly Mass. Participation declined sharply between 1965-75, falling from 67% to 54% . Weekly service attendance among Protestants, which was at 42% in 1955, rose slightly from during that same period.
After the drop off, Catholic weekly attendance leveled off, falling only slightly in the next 20 years. Protestant attendance remained constant during this same period, and has risen slightly since, to 45% in 2017.
These numbers come at a time when the Church in the United States is recovering from the sexual abuse scandals in multiple dioceses and faces increasing dissent from American popular culture. Still, the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholics has largely remained steady: in 1955, 24% of those polled were Catholic; in 2017, the number had only fallen marginally.
The best-represented age group that attended Mass weekly were those over 60 years old. Yet, for the first time, their number dropped below half, with 49% reporting that they had attended Mass in the previous week.
The second-highest group was those aged 30-39, whose number rose slightly to 43% in 2017. This age group would perhaps have been most greatly affected by the pontificate of St. John Paul II, who made the involvement and evangelization of youth one of his top priorities. This same group of people experienced a slight rise in Mass attendance in 2005-2008.
The recent study indicated that among today’s 21-29 age group, Mass attendance fell to 25%.
Dioceses across America are trying to determine the best course of action to address declining attendance. On April 28, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh announced that his diocese will move from 188 parishes to 57 “parish groupings,”a 60% drop in parishes. In addition, Bishop Zubik has focused on a plan that is “realistic but positive”and has launched a campaign called “On Mission for the Church Alive.”He stated, “The number one priority has to be…to make our worship better [with] better homilies, better music and more people.”
Bishop Zubik has also called for the opening of more lay leadership positions, as the number of active priests is expected to drop from 225 to 115 by 2025. Though the Diocese of Pittsburgh has undergone the most radical reorganization, other dioceses in the US have been forced to reorganize in light of decline in parish involvement, finances, and vocations to the priesthood. The Archdiocese of New York—long heralded as the crown jewel of Catholicism in America—announced that it would consolidate many parishes, reducing the total number to about 311. At the same time, Catholic dioceses such as the Diocese of Orange in California are experiencing record growth and vocational stability.
The reasons behind the drastic decline in weekly Mass attendance, even as Protestant attendance remained constant, are widely debated by theologians and sociologists alike. When Gallup released their research in 2009, they stated, “Theologians and other observers have variously offered the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, changes to the church brought about in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, and national publicity in 2002 over sexual abuse lawsuits against Catholic priests as possible contributors to the trend.”
No matter the reason, these low attendance numbers reveal a crisis in the Church in America, though the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholics has remained the same. Developments are in process across the country to encourage this group of Catholics to reengage with the Mass.
Images by Gallup