They’re absent from Mass, but they haven’t left the Church

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NORTH PROVIDENCE —?Why do people stop attending Mass?

Is Mass attendance necessary to be a good Catholic? Canon law and Church leaders undoubtedly say it is, but many Catholics who have stopped attending Sunday services might disagree.

It is no secret that Mass attendance has fallen across the United States and in many other parts of the world over the past several decades, many have searched for explanations for this drop.

Bob Dixon, the director of the Pastoral Projects Office of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference recently completed a study of one of the reasons for the drop in Mass attendance in Australia, a country where nearly five million people reported their religion as Catholic in the national census, but only a fraction of that number can be found in Mass on any Sunday. Dixon's study looked into the reasons why some Australians who attended Mass for most of their adult lives suddenly stopped attending in middle age. What he found could have implications in the Diocese of Providence as a committee begins studying Rhode Islanders' Mass attendance rates.

Last Wednesday, November 28, Dixon spoke to a group of about 35 lay people from several parishes during a presentation at St. Anthony Parish. He also spoke to diocesan priests earlier in the day during a separate lecture. Both clergy and lay people alike are concerned about the falling numbers.

Many people point to low rates of youth and young adult Church participation as the cause of declining numbers. Dixon acknowledges that is, of course, part of the issue. But another piece of the puzzle, he asserts, are Catholics who “had an established adult attendance pattern that changed.”

Dixon presented the group with a 1996 survey conducted in Australia that asked the parents of Catholic school children why they had stopped attending Mass. In Australia, Dixon pointed out, Catholic education is heavily subsidized by the government and does not demand the same financial sacrifice that it does in the U.S., so many parents send their children to Catholic schools even if they don’t attend Mass. These almost 4,500 parents cited numerous reasons for their non-attendance, but the reason selected by more than half of participants is surprising to say the least. Fifty-four percent of respondents reported that they “no longer feel being a committed Catholic requires going to Mass every week.”

This attitude, Dixon commented, is representative of a shift in attitudes from several decades ago when Mass attendance was not considered optional. Thirty years ago, he said, there were two groups of Catholics – committed and lapsed, or those who regularly attended Mass and those who didn't. Today, Dixon said, this survey and others reveal the emergences of a third group of Catholics who don’t attend Mass but still consider themselves committed to their faith.

In 2004 Dixon and several other Australian researchers set out to find out who made up this third group. They approached every diocese in Australia and asked the bishops for help finding members of this third group of adult Catholics who had recently stopped attending Mass.

He and the other members of the research team finally wound up with 41 Australian Catholics who agreed to participate in interviews about their religious life and their recent absence from Church. From those interviews his research shows that there are a multitude of reasons why people leave the Church, but there were certainly overlaps and parallels in the 41 personal stories he collected. The top church-related reasons people cited for their absence from Mass included:

• The irrelevance of Church to today's life.

• The misuse of the Church’s power and authority – including the sexual abuse crisis and the role of women in the Church which many respondents considered subordinate and unfair.

• Problems with a particular priest.

• Lack of intellectual stimulation, i.e. boring or repetitive homilies.

• Concerns about the parish community, particularly having difficulty feeling welcomed by a new parish.

• A sense of exclusion by Church rules, this included rules on sexuality and feelings that the Church has excluded individuals and their families based on sexual orientation.

Respondents also cited some personal reasons for their absence from Mass:

• Family or household-related issues – this included convenience, Mass times, and availability.

• Crisis of faith.

• Attending Mass is not a priority.

Dixon summarized his findings by saying that in general changes in adults' attendance patterns happen gradually, initially missing a Sunday or two until months or years pass between Mass attendances. He also said that all of the participants still said they had a spiritual life, but that it varied from very similar to Catholicism all the way to a completely non-Christian spirituality. Many of the participants had very limited knowledge of Catholic teachings or what Dixon called a “childlike faith,” which contributed to the “crises of faith” cited in interviews.

An interesting phenomenon he discovered he called “generational inversion.” Traditionally, Dixon said, many people attended Mass out of devotion to or in order to please their parents. Recently, he found, many adults attend Mass because they want to raise their children in the Church, but once the children are grown and have left the house the parents no longer feel any pressure to continue attending and are among those adult Catholics who drift away from Mass in middle age.

The most hopeful news Dixon had for those who attended his lecture was that most of the 41 people interviewed were completely open to a return to Mass and fully expected that they would return to Mass at some point. Many said they were just waiting to feel personally welcomed again. “Let’s do some inviting,” Dixon advised the crowd.

Preventing this middle-aged drifting is Dixon’s priority. “My guess is that once people have left, it’s a lot harder to get them back than it is to convince them to stay," he said.

In light of all the potentially bad news about Mass attendance he found in his study, Dixon remains very optimistic. “I don’t think there’s been irreversible damage (to the Church),” he said, "I think there are people who have made irreversible decisions."

The Church, he said, is battling against popular culture for people’s attention. “We're in a culture that’s not friendly to the values that we hold high," he said. And the problem is only exacerbated as the Mass-attending population continues to age and young people continue to fall away from the Church. “As the proportion of young people who are at Mass diminishes and they move on into mid-life and have children, their children have less chance to be socialized in the Church,” Dixon added.

The situation in Australia, Dixon was careful to point out, appears to be much worse than what U.S. churches are facing. “The U.S. has a far stronger Church-going tradition that Australia,” he said. According to a 2004 Gallup poll, 45 percent of American Catholics attended Mass in the week prior to the poll, compared with 67 percent in 1965. In Australia, only 15.3 percent of Catholics attended Mass in any given week, according to a 2001 poll.