Mass attendance declines may seem inevitable, but don’t tell that to the pastors of St. Cornelius Parish in Chadds Ford, St. Andrew Parish in Newtown and St. Rose of Lima Parish in Eddystone.
None have a university or a tourist attraction in the backyard but all have standing room-only Masses. The common denominators? Stress on well-prepared liturgies, with short, well-crafted homilies and Mass schedules that meet the needs of the people.
At St. Cornelius, which last October showed a 54 percent attendance with 3,935 weekly, Msgr. Gregory Parlante, the pastor for five years, has just added a Sunday 7 p.m. Mass.
“I had one man who works weekends tell me this was the first time in years he was able to go to Mass with his family,” Msgr. Parlante said.
“It’s not rocket science; we have a fantastic liturgy team and an excellent music ministry with music at every Mass, even on weekdays. We stress preaching with homilies [running] about seven minutes. The vast majority of effort should be in seeing that the liturgy is well done and everything else flows from that.”
The parish has seen some growth in registration, but most of the increase in Mass attendance comes from people who attended infrequently now coming to church regularly, Msgr. Parlante said.
St. Andrew has become the largest parish in the Archdiocese with 5,800 families. By last year’s count 8,530 people, or 47 percent, of the registered population was at Mass on a typical Sunday.
“We work hard on our preaching, and our homilies are 8-10 minutes,” said Father Michael C. Picard, who has led the parish for two decades.
“Our music ministry is very fine. We have a Life Teen Mass where the musicians and lectors are all teens, and it is a full house.”
The vibrancy of the parish is reflected by the 800-student school with another 1,000 children in CCD. Father Picard estimates 95 percent of those who come to Mass are registered parishioners. There is a periodic stress in the homilies for people to bring someone else back to Church. That is becoming more and more effective, according to the pastor.
Also, Sister Patricia Kelly, who has just completed her term as president of the Sisters of St. Joseph, will join the parish staff to do evangelization, which should lead to even more people in the pews weekly.
St. Cornelius and St. Andrew are located in upscale suburbs with upwardly mobile populations. St. Rose of Lima, although in Delaware County, is demographically similar to a typical working-class parish in the city.
Eddystone itself has shown a slight drop in population since the pastor, Father Gerald Canavan, arrived in 1997. Yet in that time Mass attendance has grown from 700 to 1,800, or 53 percent of the registered Catholics. Father Canavan has had to add more than 100 seats to his little church.
He offers two vigil Masses, four Sunday morning Masses and a Sunday evening Mass.
His own homilies are approximately eight minutes in length and are so popular he gives out a couple hundred weekly on CD or DVD. The homily is short but hardly spur of the moment. He works on it and prays over it for the entire week.
“The primary task for a priest is preaching the Word of God,” he said. “It’s not about 4,000 activities or fundraisers.”
Father Canavan generally begins a homily with a joke as a means of making newcomers feel at ease, and he consciously couches his message in terms that will appeal especially to men and young people – the groups most clearly missing from the pews when he arrived at the parish. The idea is to attract the men without losing the women, he said.
Again, parishioners are encouraged to evangelize and invite, and much of the increase in attendance comes from word of mouth, the pastor said.
Are his methods effective?
“I know for a fact we have 250-300 people coming to church who had dropped out,” Father Canavan said.