Part 16: Where are all the people?

Friday, January 22, 2016 - Updated: 6:00 am
By Helene E. Paharik

Part 16 of a weekly series.

Do you remember the childhood finger game: "Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people?" Today when we open the door, we do not see all the people.

Across the Diocese of Pittsburgh, in every region, Mass attendance has plummeted. Even in locations with increased population, attendance has fallen. The number of baptisms and marriages has significantly declined in the past 15 years as well.

Our statistics are reflective of national trends. In the United States, only 30 percent of people raised Catholic are still practicing today, according the Pew Research Center. The percentage of baptized Catholics who have fallen away is 70 percent.

When do they leave? Well, 79 percent of those who leave do so by the age of 24. And they are not coming back. It was thought that when they were ready to get married or to baptize their children, these young adults would come back to the church. National and diocesan statistics demonstrate that is not the case.

In the Diocese of Pittsburgh the number of marriages of parishioners has drastically dropped — from 3,258 in 2000 to 1,700 in 2015, a decline of 48 percent. In the same period the number of infant baptisms declined 47 percent here. It makes sense that if people are not getting married in the church, the number of baptisms would decline as well.

Even for the 30 percent of Catholics who are still practicing their faith, the level of participation in the church varies greatly. The majority are "cultural Catholics" who come to Mass at Christmas and Easter and participate in Catholic weddings and funerals. But that’s about it. They make up 20 percent of all Catholics today, or about 15 million.

This leaves about 8 percent to 10 percent of all Catholics in the United States actively practicing their faith. These are the folks who come to Mass, register their children for religious education, put an envelope in the basket and read the Sunday bulletin.

In the past 15 years, Sunday Mass attendance in the Diocese of Pittsburgh has fallen nearly 40 percent. In 2000, the annual October count, which is the number of people at Mass in all our parishes on a given Sunday in October, was 246,896. In 2015, the October count was a mere 149,215.

On Mission for The Church Alive! is our diocesan-wide plan for growth. Study and implementation will take courage and compassion. But if we want to have more priests, if we want to have more effective ministries led by trained laity, if we want financially stable, vibrant parishes and schools, then we need to increase participation in the church.

One way to do that right now is to ask someone to come to Mass with you this Sunday. Tell them why you go and what Mass means to you. Then offer to pick them up.

Imagine if each of us just brought one more person to Mass. Then when the doors of our parishes are opened, we will truly see all the people.

Paharik is a diocesan associate general secretary.

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