[This is an update of a 2 year-old post to my former blog, "A Voice In The Wilderness."]
During the last seven years 2 Catholics out of every 9 in the Diocese of Rochester have stopped attending weekend Mass. One would think this would be a cause of great concern to diocesan officials. If so, they are hiding their concern well.
Although some parishes began earlier, the diocese as a whole first began keeping an accurate tally of those attending weekend Mass in 2000. The methodology is simple: During each weekend in October each parish counts the people at every liturgy and then averages the numbers, thus coming up with its own Average October Attendance (AOA) figure. These AOAs are forwarded to the diocese, which adds them up.
Thus, for 2000 the diocesan-wide AOA was 108,000, and it was 110,000 for 2001, 103,000 for 2002, 98,000 for 2003, 95,000 for 2004, 91,000 for 2005, 87,000 for 2006 and 84,000 for 2007.
Is There a Trend Here?
These numbers are almost impossible to interpret by themselves, but once they are plotted on a graph it can be readily seen that the diocese has been experiencing a steady, year-over-year decline in Mass attendance during at least the last 7 years.
The actual rate of decline varies from 3.94% per year for the numbers as given above, to 3.64% per year when the 2001 number is adjusted to account for the temporary increase in church attendance that was observed nationwide immediately after the tragic events of September 11.
Official Reaction Number 1
When the first 6 years of this data was presented to the former diocesan Director of Pastoral Planning a couple of years ago, his response was that the diocese was experiencing the effects of the generational shift that is affecting the entire American Church. (The “generational shift” is the theory whereby younger Catholics – who tend to attend Mass less frequently than their elders – are slowly replacing those older Catholics in the pews, thus bringing down the averages. In other words - so the theory goes - the Church isn't really losing any members; it's just that the members we have are coming to Mass less frequently.)
While there is certainly some truth to this, national polling data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and others indicates that this effect should be just under 0.5% per year. DOR’s rate of decline, however, is some 7 to 8 times higher than what the generational shift alone would predict.
Official Reaction Number 2
When presented with the same data the diocesan Vicar General attributed much of the decline in Mass attendance to the “economic hardship” and “dramatic de-population” experienced by the 12 counties that comprise the diocese. “Our Catholic people have moved to Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas, Phoenix, and San Diego, where Catholic churches are overflowing,” he wrote in a recent letter.
At first glance this looks pretty convincing: there is little doubt that some folks have left the area due to economic conditions. However, unless the US Census Bureau has been making up its numbers out of whole cloth, there simply has been no de-population – “dramatic” or otherwise – in the Diocese of Rochester. In fact, from July 1, 2000 to July 1, 2006 the 12 counties that comprise DOR actually experienced a net increase in population! Although small (1.5%), this increase stands in stark contrast to the 19.4% decrease in Mass attendance DOR experienced during almost exactly the same time period.
To be totally fair, the Vicar General did write that there were other “good reasons for the decline in Church attendance, spiritual reasons that we can do something about.” He was not specific as to the exact nature of these spiritual reasons, but he did express the hope that the multi-year spiritual renewal process soon to be implemented by the diocese will “reverse a discouraging trend and that soon, our churches will be full again.”
My Reaction to the Official Reactions
Neither the former Director of Pastoral Planning nor the Vicar General are dumb – far from it! But one does have to wonder just what leads two otherwise intelligent men to be so ready to latch on to such demonstrably false explanations for the causes underlying our problem. Both of these men seem all too willing to put much, if not all, of the blame on circumstances that are essentially beyond our control, rather than to even entertain the possibility that our own actions, inactions, policies, and/or procedures just might be playing a significant role here.
My Advice to the Diocese
Before one can solve any problem one needs to understand the exact nature of that problem. In our case we have some 24,000 Catholics who have stopped attending Mass within the last seven years. Given the software that each parish in the diocese is required to use to track its members, it should not be very difficult to identify most of these people. The diocese could then select a statistically significant random sample of these 24,000 and simply ask them why we no longer see them at Mass.
We may not like some of the answers we are likely to get, and we may not be able to do anything about some of the problems some folks may have with the Church. But what we will have is a valid reality check. At that point - and only at that point – will we be able to develop strategies that have a realistic chance of effectively countering our continuing decline in attendance.
Let me be clear that I am not against the diocesan-wide spiritual renewal. In fact, I can make a case that it is long overdue and I hope and pray that great things will come of it. But along with that renewal I believe the Holy Spirit would also expect us to make the effort to understand the exact nature of our attendance problem so that he can more easily lead us to its solutions.