Northeast faithful losing connection to Church

There is one way of telling when the New England Patriots have a late-afternoon game on Sunday.

The 5 p.m. Mass at St. Julie Billiart, a suburban parish in Southeastern Massachusetts, has about half of its usual attendance when the Patriots kick off at 4:15 p.m. St. Julie’s pastor, Father Gregory Mathias, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, said he expected that several people would skip church when he instituted the afternoon Mass last year.

“I don’t think they are coming to our earlier Masses, because I haven’t seen noticeable increases there,” Father Mathias told Our Sunday Visitor.

St. Julie’s situation is symptomatic of shifting attitudes among Catholics, especially in the Northeast and in urban areas, who see Sunday Mass attendance as optional, or not carrying the same moral obligation that previous generations of the faithful felt.

Catechetical needs

In the archdioceses along the East Coast an average of about 20 percent of registered Catholics attend Sunday Mass. In the Archdiocese of Boston, the epicenter of the clergy sex abuse crisis that rocked the American Church in 2002, it is estimated that only 16 percent of Catholics attend Mass on Sunday.

Those hard realities have prompted the archdioceses in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, among several others, to respond with pastoral planning initiatives that often encompass a new evangelization component. The Catholic Church in the Northeast is trying to engage the new faithful to show them the relevance of living the Catholic faith in a modern context.

“It’s not just a re-evangelization. It’s an evangelization of those that have already been catechized and baptized,” said Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River.

“Many Catholics in the United States in the last 40 years have unfortunately been poorly catechized, and if you’re poorly catechized in general, it’s impossible to be fully evangelized, which means that you not only know the Ten Commandments, but you live the Ten Commandment; that you not only know the seven sacraments, but you draw your life from them,” Father Landry said.

A consequence of generations of subpar catechesis is the fact that “only a small percentage of Catholics treasure the importance of Sunday and live off the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist,” said Father Landry.

However, Mass is not the top priority for the majority of Catholics in the country, not just the region (see sidebar).

Variety of factors

Mark Gray, a research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, told OSV there are several factors at work. In urban areas, people can be “anonymous,” and will not be noticed if they are absent from the pews on Sundays.

“People feel less community and there may be less shame in missing Mass as others in the community won’t notice,” Gray said.

Another factor is the “busier” pace of urban life.

“There are more things that distract and get in the way of Sunday Mass attendance,” Gray said. “Where other areas, especially in the South, you may have stores opening later on a Sunday and fewer planned activities.

“Another is life cycle,” Gray said. “You have a disproportionate number of younger and unmarried people living in urban areas compared to rural and suburban areas. There are more people in the population of urban areas that are in that time of life that often leads to lower levels of church attendance.”

Gray also noted “a shift in perception” among Catholics on the necessity to attend Church every week.

“The monthly Mass attendance is the new weekly attendance,” Gray said. “People don’t have the same sense of sin of missing weekly Mass, even though the Church teachings in that area haven’t changed. People say they’re busy or they have to work. They say their schedules don’t allow them to have more time to worship.”

Lost gravity of sin

However, surveys show that even people who say they can be good Catholics and not attend Mass every Sunday know they are committing a sin, Gray said.

“They know it’s a sin but their view of the gravity of the sin has changed,” Gray added. “A lot of Catholics today, a good percentage of them, don’t think that God will punish them eternally for missing Sunday Mass.”

Priests and catechists have sometimes not echoed the Church’s teachings on the obligation of attending Sunday Mass, Father Landry said.

“People of good will just haven’t been given an adequate doctrinal formation,” Father Landry said. “They haven’t been taught and trained how to pray and live the Christian life adequately. The education in prayer is essential to the Church, and that has not been adequately done in most places. Many people have learned to say their prayers, but they haven’t learned how to listen to the Lord and speak back with confidence and make their entire life a prayer.”

Meanwhile, the sex abuse crisis cannot be overlooked as a reason for dampening Church attendance, Gray added.

“I think it is the case that the Northeast was disproportionately affected by the sex abuse crisis — particularly New England. This has had an impact on religious affiliation and attendance in this region. It is not as big of a deal as many assume, it is not frequently cited as a reason for leaving the Church, but it is a factor,” Gray said.

Diocesan efforts

The Archdiocese of Boston is responding to the declining Church attendance, and the related problems of falling revenues and a dearth of priestly vocations, by developing a new pastoral plan that proposes organizing parishes into groups of two and three to share resources, including pastors.

“A Church that is committed to a new evangelization and to re-energizing its clergy, lay faithful and parishes is looking at life and not death, growth and not decline,” said Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Boston’s archbishop, in a Dec. 5 address to priests.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote a Dec. 8 letter to local Catholics saying that the archdiocese, over the next 18 months, will be scrutinizing “every aspect of our common life as a Church.”

The New York archdiocese is in the early stages of an initiative known as “Making All Things New,” where parishes thus far have filled out surveys for their views on the Church’s pressing needs. Respondents identified strengthening lifelong faith formation and engaging youth and young adults in Church life as the two top tasks.

“What is coming out of this survey is the need for evangelization,” said Sister Eileen Clifford, the vice chancellor for the Archdiocese of New York. Sister Clifford told OSV that the archdiocese is also planning to hire a demographer to assist it in evaluating the needs of the faithful, who live in affluent neighborhoods in Manhattan but also in rural areas and regions marked by poverty.

Father Landry said he recently overhauled his parish’s religious education program to link catechesis more overtly to life in Christ.

“Allowing Christ’s life to radiate through us is what evangelization means,” Father Landry said.

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.