For decades, priests recognized that people would stop attending Church regularly in their late teens and 20s, but the thought was that they would always come back to get married, to baptize their children, and to send them to parish religious education or a Catholic school. So, you’d have a chance to bring them back into the Church and get them actively participating, going to Mass, and growing in their faith. Unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore. Statistically, there are more people calling themselves Catholics than ever before in the United States, but fewer of them are participating in the life of the Church.
Since 1970, the US population has increased from 205.1 million to 327.2 million, and the Catholic population has likewise increased from 54.1 million to 76.3 million. In 1970, about 26% of the US population considered themselves Catholic and by 2018 that fell to about 23%. However, while the number of Catholics has increased, the number of Catholics participating in the life of the Church and receiving the Sacraments has decreased, in some cases dramatically. The number of Children of elementary and high school age receiving religious education, either in a Catholic school or parish program, has decreased from 9.9 million in 1970 to 4.7 million in 2018, just under half. The number of infant baptisms was 1.09 million in 1970 and 615,119 in 2018. The number of Catholic marriages dropped from 426,309 in 1970 to 143,082 in 2018. Confirmations went from 419,360 in 1970 to 630,465 in 2000, then decreased steadily to 556,418 in 2018. Similarly, first communions increased from 849,919 in 1970 to 881,321 in 2000, before dropping to 685,595 in 2018. This is all bad enough, but there are two more changes that are even more disturbing to me. The percent of Catholics attending Mass weekly has dropped from 54.9% in 1970 to 21.1% in 2018, and the percent attending monthly has dropped from 71.36% in 1970 to 45.3% in 2018. There was a greater percent of Catholics going to Mass every week in 1970 than there are going to Mass once a month now. Finally, even the number of Catholic funerals has begun to drop, from 417,779 in 1970 to 472,789 in 2000, then down to 392,277 in 2018. The one rule of Catholic life that we could count on was that people always came back for their funerals, but even that is starting to change.
I don’t mean this to be a depressing article. The Lord comes to bring us life and true and lasting joy. Jesus Christ is the Price of Peace who brings hope to the world, and we should always be filled with hope in the Lord, knowing that the Holy Spirit is still with us. However, we also need to do our part. We need to teach the fullness of the faith. In the 1960s and 70s the faith was watered down in many places. I remember my mom telling me that the only thing she learned in religious education was “to be a good Catholic, you just need to go to Church and be nice to people.” If we don’t take the Bible and the teachings of the Church seriously, how can we expect anyone else to? We also need to treat the Eucharist with the reverence it deserves. The Mass shouldn’t look like everything else in our lives. When we enter Church, we should be immediately aware that we are in God’s house. It should look, and smell, and sound different, and it should feel different, more reverent and more holy. If the Church and Mass aren’t obviously places of holiness, then how can the holiness of God be translated into the rest of our lives. The Spirit of God is present in His Church, let’s work to make sure that His Presence has an impact in the way we worship and in the way we live our lives.
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Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.