Do you drive by your local parish on your way to Mass?

I am writing this from the Washington, D.C., area, where my family and I have traveled to attend a cousin’s wedding and to spend time with the families of a sister and of a brother who live in the mid-Atlantic region. 

As a Catholic newspaper editor, I look forward to opportunities like this to observe parish life and to try to get a sense of similarities and differences in “what matters” for Catholics in other parts of the country. 

On Sunday, we went to an early morning Mass at my sister’s parish. The parish itself is more than 150 years old (and actually traces its roots even further back, to a chapel in one of the homes of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence) but it is now using a beautiful and massive church building that was completed less than a decade ago.  

We were struck by the hospitality. As my wife and I walked into the gathering area with our four children, one of the ushers came over and said, “What a nice family! Would you bring up the gifts today?” After I told him we were from out of town, he said, “No problem! Visitors are very welcome here.” 

What I also found interesting, though, was that my sister, her husband and three boys attend this parish, which is about 9 miles from her house, rather than one that is less than half the distance. There are a variety of reasons for this, including aesthetic and Mass-time convenience, but in general it is that their parish-of-choice offers far more vitality and opportunities for an engaged and busy young Catholic family than their geographical parish. (My wife and I are blessed to have a similarly active parish within walking distance of our house.) 

In that, my sister and brother-in-law are prime exemplars of a trend found in newly released research from a major two-year study of U.S. Catholic parishes done by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate — some 31 percent of Catholic Americans say they attend a church that is not the closest one to their home. 

The research shows that the younger a Catholic is, the more likely they are to be a “parish shopper”: About 39 percent of Millennials (born after 1982) report attending a Catholic church that is not their territorial parish, compared with 27 percent of “Pre-Vatican II” Catholics (born before 1943). 

“In an era where more parishes are closing than opening,” writes CARA researcher Mark Gray, “these market forces may be putting pressure on some parish leaders. The phenomenon may also be eroding some of the neighborhood culture of Catholic parish communities (in CARA’s commissioned in-pew surveys we have discovered parishes that are drawing Mass attenders from other dioceses — most often in the Northeast). At the same time the survey data seem to indicate that this mobility may also make for happy parishioners.” 

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