Fewer Priests Celebrating More Masses at Fewer Parishes

A new CARA study reveals that the total weekly offerings at parishes have risen 14 percent over the past 5 years. This seems, at first, like a good thing. But additional statistics from the report titled The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes reveal a more complicated picture of the state of the Catholic parish today. The increase in weekly donations doesn't necessarily mean that registered parishioners are digging deeper into their pockets (the average total weekly offering per parish is $9,200, which equals $9.57 per registered household), but may be a result of the fact that the number of registered parishioners per parish is growing, as more and more parishes are shut down.

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- More U.S. Catholics are attending Masses at fewer parishes staffed by a rapidly declining corps of priests, according to a new report on "The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes."

Produced by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate for the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project of five national Catholic ministerial organizations, the report documents what it calls the "supersizing" of U.S. Catholic parish life.

"Bigger parishes, more Masses and ministries in languages other than English are becoming the norm," said a news release on the report released July 18.

CARA found that the number of Catholic parishes has declined by 1,359 since the year 2000 to 17,784 in 2010, representing a 7.1 percent decrease. The 2010 number is roughly equal to the 17,637 U.S. parishes in 1965 and 1,836 fewer than the peak number of U.S. parishes in 1990.

The average number of registered households in each U.S. parish grew to 1,168, and the average number of people attending Mass at Catholic parishes was 1,110 in 2010, up from an average of 966 a decade earlier....

One-third of all U.S. parishes have more than 1,201 registered households, while the percentage of parishes with 200 or fewer households dropped from 24 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2010. Smaller parishes are more likely to be closed or consolidated, but they also have higher average Mass attendance than larger parishes.

In terms of individual registered parishioners, the average for U.S. parishes was 3,277, an increase of 45 percent over the 2,260 average a decade ago, CARA said, adding that 40 percent of the growth in registered parishioners in U.S. parishes between 2005 and 2010 was among Hispanics.

Among other information gleaned from the report:

-- The total operating revenue in the average U.S. parish is $695,000, exceeding average expenses of $626,500 by $68,500. But 30 percent of parishes said their expenses exceed their revenue.
-- Total average weekly offering has grown by more than 14 percent in U.S. parishes over the past five years, to about $9,200, or $9.57 per registered household.
-- There are approximately 38,000 lay ecclesial ministers serving in U.S. parishes who are paid for at least 20 hours of work weekly. It is estimated that the U.S. church is adding about 790 new lay ecclesial ministers to parish staffs each year.
-- The total number of priests, men and women religious and deacons in the United States was 117,080 in 2010, a decline of 41 percent from the 197,172 in those categories in 1980.
-- The total number of people on U.S. parish staffs -- including ministry staff and volunteers, as well as nonministry staff and volunteers such as bookkeepers, groundskeepers, cooks, etc. -- is estimated to be 168,448. The average parish has 9.5 staff members, with 5.4 individuals in ministry positions.
-- More than three-quarters (78 percent) of parishioners in U.S. parishes are non-Hispanic white and 13 percent are Hispanic. Four percent are black, African-American or African; 3 percent Asian, Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; and 1 percent are American Indian or Alaskan Native.

Have you seen evidence of these changes in your own parish?

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Anne Chapman
7 years 8 months ago
David,  a parish I attended for 30 years has 3700 registered families - 7 masses/weekend (one in Spanish that is standing room only) in a church that seats 700 - the most popular times of the English mass were also standing room only. Because I live in the DC metro area, they have access to priests from Catholic Univ etc who will come out and say a mass on Sunday, and then leave again - they are not part of the parish, it's just to lighten the load on the parish priests (two full-time, one part-time who speaks Spanish). To call this ''community'' is accurate in only a very abstract and general sense. I was always active there - first as a volunteer in various children- and family-elated groups, later in social justice groups. So, I often recognized a face or two in the crowd.  Those who weren't active, or didn't have kids in CCD etc, could easily come and go without recognizing a single person.  The priests also know only a few by name - they are usually the volunteers (and usually not all of them, as a parish that size has a lot of them) and the rectory ''groupies'' who hang around priests the way some hang around rock stars.

 I have been attending an Episcopal parish for more than 2 years now, as I try to discern if I should leave the Catholic church forever (now in my early 60s).  Like most Episcopal parishes, it is average size - there are about 300 people in the congregation with three masses each Sunday - and most who are registered there actually do show up on Sunday. Both priests (two for a congregation of 300 and my former Catholic parish  has two for a parish with a nominal congregation of more than 12,000 people -who of course, mostly don't show very often, but they are on the rolls, but a weekly attendance on Sunday of around 4000 including kids) greeted us by name after only two weeks (introducing themselves and asking about us after the first mass when EVERYONE greets the priests), and always have time for polite chat after mass - how are the kids etc.  And more in-depth conversation at the coffee hours. It is not often that you see a face you don't recognize, whereas in the Catholic parish, it was not often that you did see a face you recognized - especially for those who weren't involved at a micro level somehow.  Rather a stark contrast to what most Catholics find in urban/suburban parishes. Of course, neither of our Episcopal priests would be priests if they were Catholic - one is a married man, one is a woman (and she's fantastic - one of the reasons my eyes were truly opened as to how much the Catholic church hurts itself by denying Holy Orders based on gender).  The Catholic parish felt like an assembly line operation where you dash in and out to race out of the parking lot to make way for those coming to the next mass. At the Episcopal parish there is a feeling that everyone is there because they want to be there - not because it is their ''obligation'' to be there.
Vince Killoran
7 years 8 months ago
I'm not certain if (or why) Episcopalians are in church because they want to be and Catholics are there for a different reason.

I agree with Anne about a number of things in her post. The size of a congregation does not necessarily determine its closeness (e.g., Protestant mega-churches). My Catholic parish sounds a lot like hers in terms of size, sociability, etc. Unfortunately, there is only one priest-a friendly but fairly intolerant and conservative guy.

We are in uncharted waters. The rectories built for six clerics are occupied by one. Small parishes are being closed; amalgamated parishes are often sutured with uneven results; and, the hierarchy does not seem to have a generous spirit or mind when considering alternatives.
7 years 8 months ago
I think the critical issue is wher eare we going.
Less priests (though the drive for vocations is on) more deacons and lay ministers in more "reorganized" parishes.
13% Hispanic and a growing percentage?
Affordability (as with schools) seems a driving force, but I think that's one reason we'll see further problems.
More pastoral vision and less management strike me as needed.
Infortuinately, I don't think much creative thinking is either happenin gor encouraged.
Anne Chapman
7 years 8 months ago

I don't know your age, and of course there are exceptions. But, in general, Catholics who ar older - who grew up in the pre-Vatican II church - had it drummed into them from early childhood that if they missed mass for any reason other than emergency or severe illness - because they were tired and slept in, or skipped for a golf match or whatever - they would go straight to hell if they happened on some misfortune before they got to confession - this was a mortal sin punishable by eternal death. The Sunday ''obligation'' was strongly emphasized as an obligation - a law that you broke at your own risk, just as when speeding on the highway.

 This teaching is still in the Catechism - mass is an ''obligation'' - a law of the church that if broken is a mortal sin, and you will go to hell if you do not go to confession before dying with this ''sin'' on your soul. Of course it is a man-made law as handed down by the Roman Catholic church rather than a law given by God  - the Commandment says to ''keep holy the Sabbath'' - it was written on a tablet long before something called a ''mass'' was invented because ''the ten commandments'' were explicitly explained to human beings  through the instrument of a Jewish man who lived long before Christ and so long before Christianity and so long before the Catholic church was organized as an independent churc -, and there are many ways to ''keep holy'' the sabbath.

 In the days of the Latin mass, people dashed into church late, slept, daydreamed or prayed private prayers like the rosary, while the priest mumbled in Latin on the altar with his back to the congregation, and then dashed out again after communion -  having fulfilled their ''obligation''  - safe from hellfire for a while. Unless of course they ate a hamburger after the Friday night football game - then the soul was in danger of hellfire again in case of mishap.  The bishops in England and Wales are bringing back the ''no meat'' on Fridays law.

 Everything is going backward, and there is a clear danger of losing all the true meaning of mass, of periodic abstaining etc - all the legalisms and threats of hellfire may lead some to ''obey'' because they fear hellfire because some men in Rome say so, rather than  participating out of love of God and a desire to grow in the Christian life. The Episcopalians I have met did not grow up with that mentality - go to church on Sunday or else!  They participate far more fully and meaningfully in the liturgy than most Catholics I observe even in the English mass where they are called to participate rather than sit in the pews as passive observers, and yet they are half-hearted at best, and often leaving right after communion. The Episcopalian liturgy is almost identical to the Roman Catholic liturgy - any Catholic could attend and fully participate without looking at the liturgy guide more than once or twice.  There is a tangible reverence (you don't need statues and Latin for that) while also warmth, especially during the exchange of greetings.

Of course, many Catholics DO go to mass for the ''right'' reasons. But, it is my experience in more than six decades as Catholic and only 2 years going to an Episcopal Church, that there is still a residual sense of ''I am doing this because it's my obligation'' among too many Catholics rather than ''I'm doing this because I love God, I am grateful for God's gifts, I am truly trying to be a better follower of Christ'' and ''I am supported in my Christian journey by being fed the spiritual food of the Eucharist and supported by the human community of which I am part each Sunday - and outside of Sundays also.''
Vince Killoran
7 years 8 months ago
I'm not too far behind you in age Anne so I know what you mean!  Still, the overwhelming majority of Catholics weren't raised in that regime. It was a different church in many ways-and one that took as its responsibility the nurturing of the Faith to a large immigrant or ethnic population that lived in a sometimes hostile country (led, BTW, by the Episcopalian and Presbytarian elite-what Bill Clinton called "the frozen Chosen").

I suspect that I share many of your sentiments.  Still, I hestitate to "go over" to the Episcopalian Church.  Stubborn, I guess.  A few years ago I read Garry Wills' WHY I AM A CATHOLIC and, while he is perhaps too harsh on those who leave ("they have a narrow perfection"), came away convinced that, warts & all, it is my spirtitual home.
Anne Chapman
7 years 8 months ago
Vince, I have read Will's books. I have not officially joined the Episcopal church - primarily because while my head is Episcopalian, my heart is still Catholic - but it is emotional and cultural, not a matter of beliving the doctrines or respecting the leadership.  I was perfectly at peace with being a cafeteria Catholic for many years, essentially looking micro - at the parish level, and totally ignoring the bishops and Rome as almost irrelvant relics of the church's historical past. 

However, after a while my conscience wouldn't leave me alone. I felt that by staying as an active, Catholic, giving my small contributions each week, I had become an enabler of a corrupt hierarchy - supporting them (often in luxury in chanceries and in Rome) while they permitted tens of thousands of children and young teens to become victims of sexual molesters whom they had the power to stop by turning them over to the civil authoritiuntil there is some action to back up the words and crocodile tears of the pope, carefully programmed for his on-camera appearances, I cannot in good conscience support this corruption. In the civil society, I have to pay taxes - but I also have a voice and a vote. If a politician is corrupt he or she is often forced to step down (often by their own political leaders as so recently happened in twittergate), and, if not, they are voted out.  Catholics have no voice in their own church - they are expected to pay, but to have no voice in how the money is spent - whether at the parish level or in chanceries or in Rome. I did not wish to continue to enable this.  So I attend mass at an Episcopal church where the people who are the church are part of selecting the leadership - they have a voice in their own church - they can call (and fire if need be) their own priests, they have a voice in the selection of bishops, etc - I may officially convert at some point and I may not. But I will not return to supporting the RCC until there is at least some small sign of reform at the top. 

Oh,  those who still view the Episcopalians as the ''frozen chosen'' (a view that held me back from exploring the Episcopal church for a long time because I bought it), need to visit a few Episcopal churches - there is a parish near my  home that fits that description pretty well. However, the several other congregations I visited before choosing one are warm and welcoming -and  home to many exiles from other churches - many, many former Roman Catholics, but also many who have left other Protestant churches, especially the more conservative and fundamentalist.  Our pastor was a Quaker, not conservative, but was drawn to the Eucharist and converted.  Our associate pastor was a Baptist - she was even an ordained minister in the Baptist church. She was also lured into the Episcopal church by the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  The majority of this particular congregation (and others I know also), started their christian journies in non-Episcopal churches, the church of their parents.  The pastor once said to me that it made for very lively Vestry meetings - people who were formed by the Baptists still retain some of that formation in their thinking, just as those who were once Roman Catholic retain theirs.  Many Episcopal churches reflect this diversity of Christian origins with a minority of cradle Episcopalians - the Anglicans have always claimed that they represent the middle way - the via media - between Rome and the  Protestant churches.
Vince Killoran
7 years 8 months ago
I appreciate your comments and, as I wrote, share many of your views.  I have no doubt that Bill Clinton's joke was more a funny way to characterize the old guard Episcopalians who, let's face it, were pretty WASP. I know many Episcopalians and find them to be a diverse lot save for social class (the pews are still filled with the "haves" and the "have mores," at least where I live.).

One final comment: I'm intrigued by your comment about how parishioners chose their pastors et al.  This was the practice in some parts of the Catholic Church in the U.S. into the early part of the 20th century.


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