Sunday, June 5, 2016

And another thing... Thoughts on declining attendance and Religious Education

Continued from last week...

The Diocese of Frostbite Falls is actually quite large. In the greater Frostbite Falls area dwell about six million people. About 2,200,000 call themselves Catholic when asked. Of these about 400,000 are in church on a Sunday. I cannot say how many go every Sunday but 400,000 is a useful number. In 1950 more than 50 percent of Catholics went to church every Sunday. Now less than 20 percent warm the hard wooden pews. In just the past 20 years the number of those attending Sunday Mass in the diocese has fallen by about 150,000.

In the past 40 years the number of parish churches has fallen from about 450 to 350, the number of priests in parish ministry has fallen from about 1,250 to 750. There are fewer than 500 priests working in parishes currently. However the number of Masses every weekend has stayed about the same, about 1,800 to 1,600. In other words, half the priests, twice the work. We are doing a lot of strategizing on how to deal with the priest shortage and the unending financial crisis, but I really don’t ever hear anyone asking about why the Catholic faith is evaporating before our very eyes in this country when it is exploding in places like Africa, the Philippines and China. 

According to Rome Reports,

Between 2005 and 2014, Africa was the continent with the most baptisms, which created a 41 percent increase of Catholics. The number of priests has also increased by 9,000, creating a worldwide total of 416,000. In addition, the number of seminarians has increased by 2,500, creating a total of 117,000. The generational shift for priests continues to be a problem in Europe, where there are only 10 candidates per 100 priests. Meanwhile, Africa and Asia have 66 and 54 candidates for every 100.”

Why is it that Catholicism is growing everywhere but among us in Europe and her daughter countries like the USA?  All the mind-numbing statistics I have just quoted can really be reduced to just a few. For instance, in our diocese weddings have dropped from sixteen-thousand a year in 1975 to just six-thousand. Baptisms have dropped also, but not by nearly so large a percent. People are having babies and many are having them baptized. They are not, however, getting married.

Another set of numbers really stands out. Perhaps I am mistaken in my interpretation of the numbers, but it strikes me as phenomenal. There are about 89,000 children enrolled in religious education programs in Frostbite Falls from grades one to eight. After eighth grade, the number who continue in any religious education drops to around 4,300. What happens in eighth grade? Simple: Confirmation. Eighty-nine thousand kids in religious education wow!! That’s a lot of kids. That means about one in four people in church on Sunday is younger than 18!!  Wait a minute; I don’t see them in church. Do you? Maybe they are wearing disguises, or going to an earlier Mass than you do. 

That, of course, is nonsense. They are not coming to church. They stop learning about the faith and participating in the faith after they are about 13-years old. Then the number of young people drops by 85,000 to just around 4,300. They are lost to the Church and the probably to the Gospel unless they wander into a Charismatic or Baptist mega-church out in the ‘burbs. Of those 4,300, the majority are probably late confirmations. They will skedaddle as soon as the oil of confirmation can be washed from their empty heads.

I have always thought that the evidence of a successful religious education program can be determined by the number of adolescent males that come to church in July when their parents are out of town. Call that the “Reverend Know-it-all’s Religious Education Litmus Test.” If I am correct, religious education over the past 40 years has been a roaring, colossal, over-the-top failure.

All the hootenanny Masses, all the attempts to make it all relevant and exciting, all of the strategies to keep the customers back in the pews with clever gimmicks and swell choirs has been a stupefying failure. We do an October count every year during which we tally up the diminishing number of participants at Sunday Mass. Forget the October count. It is irrelevant. A more useful number would be the mean age of the active Catholics in the Diocese, and a breakdown of the congregation by age.

We will invariably initiate more programs and hire more people to deal with the problem. I have been in this line of work for 42 years. It seems that there is a new program about every three years. “Always do what you’ve always done and you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten;” or “repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results is a sure sign of insanity.”  It is insane to plunge ahead with intricate answers without ever really knowing the question.

The question is really quite simple. “Why don’t people go to the Catholic Church anymore?” 

The answer is simple. They don’t really believe any of this stuff anymore. This leads to a second question that is a bit more complex. Why don’t they believe this stuff anymore?

Next week: Take everything I say with a grain of salt.


  1. I have been told that, "If you don't behave as you believe, you will believe as you behave."


  2. Bishop Fellay made a mistake and Boniface on the blog Unam Sanctam Catholicam has nothing to say in his defense:agrees Cardinal Muller and Abp. Augustine di Noia also made an objectve error

  3. Here are the controversial passages again

  4. I grew up Catholic, graduated Catholic School etc. At 40 A health scare gave me the sign to go back to church etc after a 20 year absence. I reached out to our local preists etc to see what kind of educational options there was for an adult with questions, looking to come home to the church. There is literally nothing. Aside from basic confirmation classes, there's no offering to sit and ask hard questions and receive some level or teaching. It's frustrating. Leaving those who do wish to be faithful to God that seek out answers on the internet, books written by who knows who, etc. The mega churches succeed because they sit with people, they give that face time etc.