Matthew Gambino

As much as I dislike bearing bad news, it comes with the territory. One must take the good (news) with the bad.

Over the last few years CatholicPhilly.com has reported on some bad if not awful news in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, from the sexual abuse crisis to financial quandaries to parish closures and more. We’ve also shown the local Catholic community’s signs of vibrancy and growth, from youth and young adult activities to inspiring models of Christian discipleship in parishes, institutions and homes in the Philadelphia region.

Today we begin a new, multi-part series on the changing experience of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The church itself is the same as founded by Jesus Christ after his resurrection. But how we live as his disciples in the body of Christ is changing in ways different than those we have known historically and personally.

The first story in our series takes a look at attendance at Sunday Mass. How many Catholics participate in the Sunday liturgy — the source and summit of our worship through the Word of God and in communion with his body and blood — joining with their parish community in this divine sacrifice?

That fundamental question has been answered since 1990 as the parishes of the archdiocese have been counting heads at all the Sunday Masses in October of each year. The October Count gives a picture of how many people come to church regularly on a typical Sunday.

As the figures show, 199,101 people attended Mass in the 214 parishes of the archdiocese last year, down from 416,137 in 1990. We analyze some significant facets of the numbers, with comparisons over the years, in our story.

One nugget from the October Count that is often referred to is the percentage of people attending Mass; that is, of the people who are registered at a parish, what percentage of them actually participate in the Sunday Mass?
In 2018 the answer was a historically low 18%. That percentage of Mass attendance has never been lower.

But take it with a grain of salt. Since people who move seldom unregister from their parish, and others might not formally join a parish when moving into it, the percentage figure is a bit deceptive. It is not as instructive as comparing the number of attendees over the years.

This first part of the series examines some reasons for the decline — and sometimes the rise — in Mass attendance.

Future installments will look at the impact and history of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the archdiocese; examine sacramental life in parishes and Catholic education enrollment over the past 50 years; analyze clergy and religious resources in the past, present and future; survey the evolving nature of parish life and its ministries, social activities and spiritual expression over time; investigate the changing institutional structures on which many Catholic ministries rely; and explore how Catholics’ expectations of their church, each other and themselves as disciples is undergoing a period of radical reexamination.

We will use data collected from the resources of CatholicPhilly.com and various archdiocesan offices, especially the Office for Parish Service and Support. We will also rely on parish leaders and parishioners — those active and those who have walked away from the church. Please add your voice and experiences on any of these topics to this presentation by dropping me a message via email.

The reason for this series — with its good news and bad — is to equip the Catholic community with the facts of our current reality and to present them clearly and in context.

Catholics must take responsibility for how we effectively live the Catholic faith in our time and place. If we merely ask leaders to “fix” this or that perceived problem, as if to return the church to some perfect state from the Golden Age of yesteryear, we’re going to be disappointed, because going backward is no option.

Change, like growth, is constant, and the course likely forthcoming in the near future should be forged by faithful Catholics in a mature, intelligent, sensitive way, marked by prayerful reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who never abandons the church of Jesus Christ.

We must walk to the future with clear eyes, together, in hope. Let us be on our way.