Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Liturgy Reflections
Who's going to church?

by Father Jan Larson

(From the Oct. 23, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Jan Larson In reading the current literature on the topic, it seems that patterns of church-going among Catholics are no easy thing to analyze. What seems certain is that there are more Catholics than ever before (and an ever-increasing number of former Catholics), but fewer Catholics are attending Sunday liturgies. One hears the statistic that says that only about one-third of church-going Catholics will be at the liturgy on any ordinary Sunday. Of course, Christmas and Easter are always obvious exceptions.

But what if all church-going Catholics were suddenly to begin going to church? Or even more unimaginable, what if all baptized Catholics began regular Mass attendance? There would be enormous chaos. Virtually all parish churches would suddenly be too small, liturgy schedules would be drained, as would the numbers of priests and liturgical ministers.

Though this is not likely to happen any time soon, many experts feel that, for the declining number priests and the growing number of Catholics, there will be a corresponding inability of the Church to minister to the sacramental needs of its members. 

Sociologist D. Paul Sullins of The Catholic University of America is not so sure. He has argued that there are at least three facts that are rarely mentioned in such discussions.

First, the increasing numbers of deacons and lay ministers and staff have greatly softened the impact of the priest shortage and the increasing number of Catholics.

Second, though there may be a shortage of priests, we tend to take as our standard the ’60s, when there was a huge abundance of priests. Sullins explains that the current ration of priests to parishes (just over two), “while lower than the ’60s, is still much higher than at any time before World War II, and nearly twice as high as at the beginning of the 20th century.”

The third interesting point that Sullins makes is that people’s demand for the services of the Church has not increased, but in fact has significantly decreased since the ’60s. Catholic participation in the sacraments has been in regular decline since those days. Indeed, there are more Catholics today, but they participate in the liturgies of the Church in much smaller proportions than they did 40 years ago. Reliable polls show that 74 percent attended the liturgy in 1958 and only 52 percent by 1983. By the year 2000, only 30 percent of Catholics who were asked reported that they come to church each week.

Of course, there are all kinds of statistics, and sociologists may disagree on how to interpret the various data, but some things are certain.

Catholic Christianity is here to stay, as are the many pastoral needs that come with Catholic life. The challenge is to identify those needs and make the adjustments necessary to assure that quality pastoral care and the Church’s rich sacramental life and tradition are available to all Catholics, no matter what their numbers.

(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)

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