WASHINGTON — Three years ago, in mid-March, COVID-19’s outbreak in the United States quickly and drastically up-ended life as people knew it, as businesses, schools, and houses of worship closed.
Catholic churches were no exception. As Catholic bishops in dioceses across the country granted dispensation from the obligation for Catholics to attend Sunday Masses, parishes across the country shut their doors and halted some ministries or moved them to online formats.
Amid this drastic change, church leaders worried that when the pandemic eventually ended, many parishioners might not come back. And now, as the Church enters its fourth Lent with the pandemic still not completely over, those concerns remain. Overall, attendance at religious services of all faiths is starting to pick up, but it is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels, which is something Catholic churches are also experiencing.
“Our tracking indicates we are seeing a return to normal,” said Mark Gray, a research associate professor at Georgetown University and director of the university’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, known as CARA.
The group, which studies trends in the U.S. Catholic Church, is about to conduct three national studies on church attendance likely to be released after Easter, Gray told The Tablet. For now, it is reporting an uptick based on attendance at this year’s Ash Wednesday Masses nationwide.
In a Feb. 24 tweet, CARA said it estimates:
“45% of U.S. Catholics attended services for Ash Wednesday this year. Attendance figures, in general, are rising post-pandemic.”
Attendance levels also vary for age groups and even from parish to parish. In short, it depends on where you are. In the Diocese of Brooklyn, there are both lower Mass attendance numbers and the beginning of a return to the pews.
Part of the issue in Brooklyn is demographics. Placer.ai, a company that studies trends, reported in January that much of Brooklyn is still recovering from the pandemic’s impact, with an overall population in October 2022 at 4.4% lower than it was in November 2019.
The study also showed that while some neighborhoods have had a population decline, other areas, especially those closer to Manhattan, have grown. The population of Queens dropped by 5.8% during that time period. In a January letter to parishioners, Father Larry Ryan, pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Prospect Park West, mentioned the decline of Mass-goers.
“Average Sunday Mass attendance remains at barely 300,” he wrote, “as opposed to nearly 600 before the pandemic. We need to increase in-person attendance at Sunday Mass.” In a plea for parishioners to share more of their time, talent, and treasure with the parish, he emphasized that this is “especially important now as we continue to struggle to recover from the lingering effects of the pandemic.”
On a positive note, he pointed out that during the pandemic, parish weekly collections “were only moderately reduced despite the decline in Mass attendance,” something he said was helped by online giving. Father Jose Henriquez, pastor of St. Finbar in Bath Beach, told the Tablet on March 2 that in the past few months, Mass attendance at the parish has almost doubled to 600, something he attributes to people “losing their fear of coming out.”
He said he and other parish leaders have been encouraging people to come back to church and said it is uplifting to see this start to happen. Similarly, Father Joe Ceriello, pastor of Queen of All Saints Church in Fort Greene/ Clinton Hill, said Mass attendance has been steadily increasing since Christmas with both familiar and new faces at the church in recent weeks.
He also said the parish’s three distribution times for ashes on Ash Wednesday drew unusually large crowds, with a lot of young adults giving him “many reasons to be hopeful.” In 2021, The Tablet reported that the Basilica of Regina Pacis in Windsor Terrace had to add a Spanish Mass on Sundays to accommodate the overflow crowd at its one Sunday morning Spanish Mass when restrictions required parishes to only allow 50% capacity.
Now the parish offers a Sunday Mass in English, Spanish, English/Italian, and Mandarin. Looking at church attendance overall, a study released in January by the American Enterprise Institute and the University of Chicago showed that the pandemic’s longterm effect was minimal except on young adults, whose church attendance dropped.
The study, “2022 American Religious Benchmark Survey,” showed that 30% of young adults go to church less than they did before the pandemic, and 12% of them have increased their attendance. The decrease reflected a trend that had already been happening, according to a Gallup Poll last December. All the age groups polled in 2022 said they attended church services less frequently
now than before the pandemic, but these numbers went down by age, which might surprise those who think older people are staying home. Only 16% of Americans 65 and older decreased their church attendance post-pandemic, and 9% increased their attendance.
The findings also revealed how attendance declines affected some religious groups more than others. Mormons, white evangelicals, and white Catholics experienced relatively steady attendance, with more than 70% percent of each group reporting no change in their frequency of worship attendance, but this number was lower for Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics, where 61% from each group had the same level of church attendance before and after the pandemic.
The study also showed that even though church attendance patterns changed during the pandemic, those polled said their religious affiliations remained the same. That bit of information is hopeful, according to Daniel Cox, one of the study’s authors.
He told Religion News Service that churches have the opportunity now to connect with members who might not have come back, because they haven’t walked away. This was part of the point that Deborah Amato, then-chair of the National Advisory Council, an advisory body to the U.S bishops, told the bishops during their virtual fall meeting in 2020.
She said at the time, when many churches had still not reopened, that the advisory council was concerned about what the Church would be like after the pandemic, and emphasized the need to bring Catholics back to churches and accompany them when they return.
“The faithful are hungry for hope and the sacraments,” she told the bishops, “Let’s go out and bring them home.”