Mass Attendance and Scandal

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter J. Daly

September 1, 2003


            Mass attendance is down in the Archdiocese of Washington.

For the first time in a decade, the number of people coming to Sunday mass has declined. The decline over the previous year was 7.55%. It mirrors similar declines in many parts of the country.

            Over all, less than a third of Washington area Catholics are coming to mass on Sundays. We had just over 150,000 people in the pews, out of more than 500,000. That ratio has been pretty much unchanged over the past decade.

The data in the Archdiocese of Washington is based on a headcount taken each year by ushers at all the Sunday masses in October. The attendance is then averaged out.

Like many dioceses, Washington takes a count in October because it is a “normal” month. There are no major holidays and extended vacations, which might distort the numbers.

Our October 2002 decline was the first since 1994. It represents a real reversal.

One would probably expect a modest increase in attendance each year in the Washington region, which has a fast growing general population, including a large Hispanic immigrant population.

Over the past ten years mass attendance had inched up by two or three percent each year, consistent with overall population growth.  Therefore, a decline of 7.55% is serious. It is actually a reversal of more than 9% to 10% because it wiped out our typical two or three percent increase.

What is our response to this decrease? Nothing, so far.

In 1997, Sunday mass attendance went up just over 5%. That year we were very proud of the increase. Our archdiocesan paper covered the story. This year, with the decline, we are saying nothing. Perhaps that is because nobody is sure exactly why the decline took place and nobody knows what to do.

There are several possible reasons for the decline. One of the most frequently mentioned reasons is the Washington area sniper scare. Last year people were staying home out of fear of getting shot. That was especially true in Montgomery County, where the shootings started. It was also true in Prince Georges County, Maryland, where a young boy was shot on his way to school. There the mass attendance was down 23 %.

However, the sniper scare does not account for whole decline. Attendance was down even in areas untouched by the sniper, such as Southern Maryland. Most disturbingly, the biggest decline in mass attendance was on college campuses. Our campus ministries reported a 42 % decline in mass attendance over the previous year.

I think a major reason for the decline in mass attendance in 2002 is the fallout from the child abuse scandal. In October of 2002, when our count took place, the scandal had just passed its crescendo.

During the height of the scandal, poll after poll showed 95% of the faithful saying that the scandal would not affect their faith. But 5% said that it would affect their faith. Five percent of the Catholics in the U.S. is a lot of people, about 3.3 million to be precise.

Nationwide, declining mass attendance is a real challenge for the Church, especially among young people.

Catholic University sociologist Dean Hoge and his research team have shown in their survey of young adult Catholics, that only 37% of young adults think it is important to attend mass once per week.

Whatever the reasons for the decline this past year, it is serious. Not cause for alarm, but certainly cause for reflection and discussion.

I believe that Jesus has the words of everlasting life. I believe that the Eucharist is the bread of life. If we are followers of the good shepherd, maybe now is the time to go is search of the lost sheep. Somehow they have strayed from the flock.