Father Peter Daly
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
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
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
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
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,
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.