The October Count of Mass attendance began in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1990. October 2020 was the first time in 30 years that this computation did not take place. This interruption was due to the coronavirus pandemic. The obligation to attend Mass was temporarily suspended on March 14, 2020 and was reinstated on Aug. 15, 2021.
I feel that it is important to provide a context for this year’s count of Mass attendance. The 2021 October Count took place seven weeks after the obligation to attend Mass was restored. The Delta variant of the coronavirus arrived in Pennsylvania in late summer and remained through the early fall.
The October Count report shows a 32% percent decrease in Mass attendance from 2019 to 2021. These results are sobering, and the effects of the ongoing pandemic are profound. I believe that for many parishioners not attending Mass in person, the reason is related more to health and safety concerns for self and family members rather than to a disconnection from the practice of one’s faith.
Livestream Masses were put into place quickly and nimbly at parishes when the Pennsylvania quarantine was mandated. The hybrid model of Mass availability in person and via livestream continues. Viewing Mass remotely provides parishioners with a connection to their parish during times when social distancing may be necessary.
Parishioners are able to see their parish church remotely, and this familiar place and sacred objects often provide comfort during an unsettled time.
Pastors throughout the archdiocese, in the comments section of the October Count report, remarked that many parishioners continue to view Mass from home. The viewing of Mass via livestreaming is not a part of this report. This is because it is not possible to obtain an accurate count.
Not all of the systems that parishes use to livestream Mass provide information on the number of households logging in. For those who can obtain log in data, it is not possible to determine the numbers of people who were viewing in each location.
During October 2021, over 129,900 people worshipped together each week at 861 Masses celebrated in 23 languages through the five-county area, from Saturday evening until Sunday evening.
Seven parishes in the archdiocese reported an increase in the number of people attending Mass. Three parishes offered Mass in four languages each weekend. An additional 13 parishes offered Mass in three languages each weekend.
Mass attendance increased for Masses offered in the following languages: American Sign Language, Francophone, Italian, Latin, Liberian, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Tagalog and Tamil.
The vitality of the local church is apparent in the ways that our parish communities continue to provide for the spiritual needs of parishioners in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.
The priests, deacons, musicians and singers, sacristans, lectors, altar servers and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, who have been involved in the celebration of Masses at parishes since the beginning of the pandemic, provide a wonderful witness to the eucharistic centrality of our faith.
When it comes to Mass attendance, there is always room in the pews for more. Dan Cellucci, CEO of Catholic Leadership Institute, offers a perspective.
“Since 2019, we see an average drop of between 30-40% in Mass attendance according to the October counts,” he said. “While in the aggregate it’s a very daunting challenge, we do see individual parishes closer to 85-90% of their 2019 attendance, which is more encouraging.
“However, we have to always keep in mind that even our 2019 attendance was only about 17-25% of self-identified Catholics in this country. It’s really important that all of us double-down on our individual outreach to our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Hopefully as ways are found to manage the coronavirus pandemic, there will be an increase in the number of parishioners returning to Mass.
I believe that the 2021 October Count will serve as a point of reference in our efforts to understand the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on Mass attendance and the dynamics of the parish community.
Meanwhile, over the past six months, changes have taken place in terms of vaccinations, boosters and infection rate of the coronavirus. Many restrictions have been lifted and people are becoming less hesitant to go out and participate in social events.
With this in mind, pastors were invited to conduct an April Count of Mass attendance. Participation in this count was voluntary. Parishes are in the process of finalizing and submitting their reports. Information concerning the April 2022 count will be provided in the future.
Evelyn Brannan Tarpey is the associate for pastoral planning in the archdiocesan Office for Parish Service and Support.
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