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Philippa Martyr: An overview of the Australian Catholic Mass Attendance Report

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Parishioners at St Andrew’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, Lidcombe, during a Mass for peace in Ukraine in 2022. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

It’s here! For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been checking the National Centre for Pastoral Research’s (NCPR) website to see if it had appeared.

It’s the National Count of Attendance for May 2021—our five-yearly estimate of the number of Catholics who go to Sunday Mass in Australia.

The last count took place in 2016 and gave us a total estimate of around 600,000 Catholics at Mass on Sundays in Australia. That’s pretty much the population of Tasmania.

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This time, the count took place during COVID19. There was some discussion about whether the count should take place or not because of church closures.

Thankfully common sense prevailed, and the NCPR was able to collect some empirical data about what was going on (or not going on) in our churches.

And in May 2021, things weren’t as bad as they had been. Most Catholic parishes in Australia were offering Mass in their churches again, and most of them completed their count of Mass attenders during May and June.

Some had to put their count off until July and August. But overall, there was a really good response rate, which means that these numbers can actually tell us something.

During COVID19, I did a study of churchgoing Catholics in Australia and how they were meeting their worship needs. From that study, I was also able to estimate how many Catholics were likely to come back to Sunday Mass once churches re-opened after COVID19.

I worked out that around three-quarters of all regular Sunday Massgoers were likely to come back. That would take us from around 600,000 of them in 2016 to around 450,000 after churches re-opened.

So it’s quite rewarding—in a bad way—to see that I wasn’t far off. According to the NCPR’s report, the typical Sunday Mass attendance in 2021 was around 417,000 people, or 8.2 per cent of the Catholic population.

That includes all the eparchies and ordinariates. But when we take them out, the number of Western (Latin) rite Catholics in Australia going to Mass on Sundays is just over 385,000 people.

There’s been a steady decline in Mass attendance rates in Australia since we’ve been tracking them (from 1996, when it was 18 per cent). But the loss in the last five years has been much larger than previously recorded—about a third of all our Massgoing Catholics.

A few more changes have happened since 2016. Sunday Mass attendance used to be around two-thirds female, but it’s now dropped to just 56 per cent. Is it because women are deserting the church because of its hidebound patriarchy and lack of female deacons?

Sadly, it’s more likely that they’ve died. Most of our Massgoing females are aged over 60, which makes them more likely to die than younger people. I’ve run some numbers on this which I’ve talked about before.

Also, many of our female churchgoers were elderly enough to be approaching infirmity. COVID19 church closures saw many elderly Catholics become housebound, and now finding it easier to participate in Mass virtually.

A quarter of our Sunday Massgoers are now aged over 70, but here’s the good news—people aged 18-29 now make up almost 12 per cent of everyone at Mass. That’s double the figure of 6.5 per cent in 2016.

If you can imagine the total Catholic population in Australia, and divide it into age groups, pretty much the same percentage of each age group is going to Mass—between six and eight per cent.

That is, until we get to age 70. Twice as many people in the 70-plus age group are going to Mass on Sunday—nearly 15 per cent of them.

We used to have a weird demographic “mushroom”—a big elderly Massgoing population supported by a thinner and thinner stalk of younger Massgoers. But this is now starting to look more like a young oak tree with a sturdier trunk and a smaller canopy.

What’s it like at diocesan level? The tide has gone out everywhere. But who has lost the most actual Massgoing Catholics?

The Massgoing heartlands of Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, and Brisbane have all taken big hits. In 2016 they were home to just over 345,000 of all of Australia’s Massgoing Catholics—a little over half.

But since then, they’ve lost around 120,000 between them. They’re down to a total of 225,000 between them—which is now more like 58 per cent of all our Western rite Catholics (heading towards two-thirds).

If we keep going this way, in five to ten years’ time almost all the Massgoing Catholics in Australia will live in these four archdioceses.

Melbourne is carrying the biggest load – nearly 22 per cent of all Massgoing Catholics in Australia live in that archdiocese. Sydney is next with nearly 16 per cent of the total, and Perth and Brisbane both have just over 10 per cent each.

Only nine of our dioceses—that’s just one-third—have Mass attendance total numbers in five figures (so over 10,000). Outside of the archdioceses mentioned above, these are Parramatta, Adelaide, Broken Bay, Wollongong, and Canberra-Goulburn.

They all have dire Mass attendance rates but they have big Catholic populations, so the actual numbers of people in the pews is in five figures. Well done!

The diocese that lost the smallest number of Massgoing Catholics was Broome, in Western Australia. But given that it only had 695 of them in 2016, there wasn’t that far to fall to get to 592.

What dioceses lost the biggest proportion of people from their 2016 total? Remember that nationally, most dioceses have lost around a third of all their Massgoing Catholics since 2016.

But three dioceses lost much higher percentages than that—Maitland-Newcastle lost 48 per cent of its Massgoing Catholics, Rockhampton 42 per cent, and Parramatta 41 per cent.

The Melkites, Maronites, Ukrainian rite, and the Military Ordinariate also all took big hits and have lost substantial numbers of Sunday Mass attendees since 2016. The Maronites—who are the largest eparchy, and well-established—have taken the biggest loss of around a quarter of their Massgoers.

But on the bright side, the Chaldean and Syro-Malabar eparchies have almost doubled their numbers of Massgoers. The Personal Ordinariate of our Lady of the Southern Cross has also gone from 196 to 333, an almost 70 per cent increase.

There’s a lot to talk about here, and it will take a while to unpack it. But that’s how it’s looking right now.

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