By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

It’s five weeks and counting until the annual October Count. That’s when the ushers in all of the churches throughout the Archdiocese start counting everybody at Mass during the four weekends of the month.

Why do we count?

“It tells us the proportion of the registered population who would normally be expected to attend Mass. Pastors, parish council members and archdiocesan staff use this for long-range planning of how best to allocate the limited resources of the Church. We chose October because it is a fairly typical month, unlike Lent or Advent or summertime,” explained Robert J. Miller, director of the archdiocesan Office for Research and Planning.

There are three different methods for calculating Catholic numbers – people who self-identify themselves as Catholic, people who register with a parish and people who attend Mass at a parish.

The self-identified Catholic is obtained through national polls, such as the Gallup poll that asks people what their religion is. It does not necessarily mean they attend church, it just means they were baptized Catholic and that’s how they think of themselves. This is one of the tools used for estimating the figure in the archdiocesan Catholic Directory. The figure for 2007 is 1,458,430; this estimate also takes into account people who are not registered for a reason – students away from home, people who are in nursing homes or the military, as examples.

As for parish-registered Catholics, the figure was 1,189,725, according to the 2008 October Count. Of this figure 291,212 were in church on a typical weekend. That works out to approximately 24 percent of the registered total.

Figures can vary. Center City parishes, such as the Cathedral, may show higher than average attendance because of visitors to the area. West Philadelphia’s St. Agatha-St. James had a whopping 455 percent attendance because of its successful ministry to non-registered Penn and Drexel students.

Although the overall archdiocesan figure for the ratio of registered Catholics who are at Mass on a given weekend is accurate, when applied to inspanidual parishes it may be misleading.

When children grow up and move on, their parish may not know it. Also, whole families move without notifying the parish. This especially affects city parishes because so many Catholic have moved to the suburbs.

This has been a steady trend for years, although the Philadelphia-South Vicariate actually gained more than 1,000 registered Catholics last year, possibly because of a resurgence in Center City and an increased immigrant population, Miller suggests.

For receiving parishes, the opposite is true. People, even if they attend Mass regularly, may not register with a parish until they need to – for example, the baptism of a child, the need for a sacramental letter from the pastor, or enrolling a child in school. This would give the parish a higher percentage when comparing attendance to registration.

The Archdiocese has been conducting the October Count since 1990 when the attendance figure was 34 percent of registered Catholics. For the first decade declines were modest. Since 2001 they have been steeper, according to Miller.

While the clergy abuse scandal could be a factor, that’s not what national studies are suggesting.

Citing these studies, Miller believes that the real cause is that Catholics born and raised before the 1960s (sometimes known as the pre-Vatican II generation) who would never consider missing Sunday Mass are dying off and being replaced by a younger generation, who may not put as high a premium on weekly attendance as did their grandparents.

“They would be more open to the possibility of missing weekly Mass – which they would not necessarily characterize as not attending regularly,” he said. “They might consider attending twice a month as attending regularly.”

Because we are called to build community, he believes the situation is an invitation to evangelize, and it’s up to the parish staff and the active members of the parish to work together to reach out to those who do not attend regularly. It’s not enough to assume notices in the church bulletin are sufficient for outreach. Web sites, e-mail, regular mail and home visitation should be considered.

But the cup is also half-filled.

“I think we do people a disservice if we do not recognize how alive the Church is when every Sunday almost 300,000 people worship together in more than 1,000 Masses in 17 languages through the five-county area, from Saturday evening until Sunday evening,” Miller said. “Over 3,000 priests, deacons, musicians and singers, sextons and directors of liturgy are involved in preparing and ministering in this worship. This is a wonderful witness to our faith and expression of involved commitment of those who prepare the liturgy. But there is always room for more. Hopefully, this October we’ll have more parishioners in the pews on Sundays.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.