Parish Diary

Father Peter Daly

June 2008


Where is Every Body?


            According to the Catholic Directory, the Archdiocese of Washington has

about 450,000 Catholics living within its confines, which includes

Washington, D. C. and five counties in Maryland.

            The Archdiocese has just published the 1997 results of the annual "head

count" take by ushers in every parish on all the Sundays of  October. 

That is the best month to take the count.  Kids are in school, vacations

are over and weather is good.  Most people are at home and able to get out.

The survey shows that only about 150,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of

Washington are participating in mass on an average Sunday.  This is only

one third of the Catholics living in our Archdiocese.  Where is every body?

The Archdiocese of Washington is probably typical of the church as a whole

throughout the U.S. and Canada.  Despite the teaching of the Church and the

urging of pastors, a lower and lower percentage of Catholics is assisting

in the Eucharist and joining in the common prayer life of the church.

Of course, need to put this in perspective.  According to the surveys done

by George Gallup and Jim Castelli, church attendance probably peaked in the

religious revival years of the 1950s.  All churches, Protestant and

Catholic, had a higher percentage of people coming than at any time in our

history.  The percentages of today have fallen from a peak that could

probably not be sustained.  Actually, probably about the same percentage of

people are going to church in the 1990s as were going in the 1920s and

1930s.  Down from the peak years, but still a respectable showing when

compared to Europe and Latin America.

            We can never expect 100% attendance.  Even in the peak years of the 50s,

when practically every able bodied person got themselves to church on

Sunday, the percentages never exceeded 80% or so, except in a few rural

dioceses.   There are always a certain number of shut-ins, sick people and

people away on travel.  Some people are too infirm to get out and some

babies are too young to take to church.

            But even allowing for the 25% or so who cannot come for one reason or

another,  the figures are discouraging.

            On the other hand,  if everyone came to church, we probably could not

accommodate them.   I doubt that if you added up all the seats at all the

masses in all the churches in our Archdiocese, we could even accommodate

75% of our people who we list in our census.

 My little parish church holds only 200 people.  I currently preside at

five Sunday masses each week.  In the summer,  I sometimes celebrate six.

Nearly all the seats are nearly always taken.   If all of the 1,900 or so

parishioners came on a Sunday, about seven hundred of them would have to

stand on the porch and look in the windows, like they do on Ash Wednesday

and Easter Sunday.

What to do?  I don't think anybody, not even the omniscient Andrew Greeley,

really knows.

Part of the decline is cultural. It touches every religion in the

industrialized West.  Christianity values simplicity (poverty), modesty

(chastity) and acceptance (obedience) to God's will.  The culture values

material wealth, eroticism, and personal autonomy (choice).  Obviously,

when people get beyond their childhood years, they have to decide.

Sometimes, even though they were baptized and confirmed, they cast their

lot with the culture not the church.

Another part of the decline might be that there are too few priests and too

many people.  I cannot possibly have a personal relationship with the 750

people, who come to mass on an average Sunday, let alone the 1,900 or so

who are registered in our parish.  My Protestant neighbors usually minister

to about one fifth as many people and are therefore able to know their

people better (though oddly, their level of church attendance is worse).

Perhaps it is the liturgy itself.  In an age of entertainment saturation,

people are not always used to participating.   Perhaps they expect to be

entertained in a way the liturgy cannot provide.

I don't know what the answer is.  However, I do know that both the church

and the people who stay away are losing something.

 If they think the liturgies are mundane or uninvolving, image how much

more exciting liturgies could be if everyone was there and participating. 

If they think the parish is too cold or too impersonal, imaging how warm

and inviting it could be if they would make an effort to greet someone and

stay a few minutes after the last hymn to chat.

Perhaps in our push for evangelization, as we approach the new millennium,

we should figure out where the rest of the body of Christ is and why they

are staying away.  These are, after all, people who have registered

themselves as members of our churches, but for some reason, stay away.