How this Christmas offered a glimpse of Christmas Future

When you attended Christmas Mass a month ago, you likely found the parking lot full and pew space at a premium.

That’s because Catholics are more likely to attend Christmas Mass than any other liturgy throughout the year.

Because of that, according to a fascinating recent report I saw, Christmas “provides a glimpse of what the Catholic Church might look like on a weekly basis if the decline in Mass attendance from the late-1950s peak had never occurred.”

The report, on the blog of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, said some indicators pointed to attendance hitting an all-time high during Christmas 2009.

And it said there’s every reason to think that Christmas Masses will continue to get more crowded — to the point that, in 2035, there simply won’t be enough seats for everybody.

Here are the data used to come up with that projection:

  •  Today about 31 percent of Catholics (22 million people) attend Mass in an average week in the United States. (Compare that to 1957-58, when an estimated 74 percent of Catholics attended Mass weekly.)
  •  But 68 percent of Catholics attend Mass at least “a few times a year” — most likely representing Christmas and Easter.
  •  That means roughly 48 million Catholics attended Christmas Mass in 2009 — when the usual weekend attendance is 22 million.
  • The total seating capacity of Catholic parishes in the United States — the number of seats (8.7 million) times the number of weekend Masses (62,500) — is currently about 33,578,000. That means in an average weekend, the seats are 65 percent filled.

That doesn’t leave a lot of extra capacity. The projection looks a quarter century down the road, assuming Mass attendance rates hold steady at 31 percent (as they have in recent years), the Catholic population grows 25 percent (as it has since 1985), and the number of parishes declines by another 5 percent (as it has since 1985, and likely will continue to because of insufficient priests).

Bottom line: In 2035, there will be 60 million Catholics at Christmas Masses — and only 31.9 million total seats.

One solution is to increase the number of Masses, as far as possible in the limited hours of the day.

But that’s not enough. The projection suggests that the physical capacity of the Church in the United States will have to grow — contrary to current trends toward consolidation.

Of course, that day could come even sooner if we’re able to get weekly Mass attendance rates edging up. Initiatives like Catholics Come Home are having some success; the Diocese of Phoenix estimates it has brought back 92,000 inactive Catholics through its advertisements.

The numbers provide lots of food for thought. Do any conclusions jump out at you? Write me at feedback@osv.com