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Philippa Martyr: How do we account for the decrease in Mass attendance over five years to 2021?

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Mass attendance Australia - The catholic weekly
Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

We’ve seen the National Count of Attendance for May 2021, and it’s disheartening. We’ve lost over 200,000 Catholics in five years.

But where have they gone? I’d like to offer some explanations, because there’s no one single cause for all this.

In the first place, we must factor in the death rate. With a big group of much older Mass-goers, it’s likely that nature will have taken its course.

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Between 2016 and 2020, around 700,000 Australians over the age of 60 died. Around 161,000 of those are likely to have been at least nominal Catholics (around 23 per cent of the population at that time).

The rate of Mass attendance in this age group was around 27 per cent on average back then, so that means that around 44,000 of those deceased over 60s were likely to have been Mass-going Catholics.

But what about the remaining 156,000 that we lost? This is where my COVID-19 study gets useful and interesting.

I was able to survey a group of 806 Mass going Catholics nationally between August and October 2020 whose churches had been re-opened. The biggest group that got left out was those living in Victoria, who were still under lock and key.

Mass attendance Australia - The catholic weekly
Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

I asked them what their rate of Mass attendance had been before church closures, and what it was afterwards. This meant that I could estimate how many people were likely to come back to Mass on a regular basis.

A tiny group of 3 per cent had increased their Mass attendance after COVID-19 church closures, presumably out of sheer relief. Around 71 per cent were back to their old rate of Mass attendance.

But that left around 25 per cent who just weren’t going back to Mass as often as they did before. And these people had been regular Sunday Mass-goers before church closures.

So if even the solid Sunday Mass-goers were dropping off like that, imagine what it would be like if you were an irregular Mass-goer—someone who was popping along maybe once a month when you felt up to it?

We had around 600,000 Mass-goers in 2016. If we take out those who I think have died, we’re left with 556,000.

A quarter of that is 139,000. That plus the deaths easily makes up the number of Mass-goers we have lost since 2016.

There are other factors that can make it look like there’s been losses at the local level where perhaps there hasn’t been. For example, people can move from one diocese to another.

Or, fewer people in one diocese might have identified as Catholic in the 2021 Census, compared to previous years. A smaller nominal Catholic population can mean fewer people in the pews.

Or, there is a large itinerant migrant Catholic population in your diocese—mostly Filipino and Vietnamese workers—that comes and goes. Many of these people simply went home during COVID-19, and didn’t come back.

I also collected Mass-going Australian Catholics’ views about COVID19 church closures. Around a quarter of my survey group—around 288 people—gave me a few well-chosen words to chew over.

The main theme that emerged was one I decided to call “Church and State,” because there were very strong views about both authorities. There were both pro-lockdown and anti-lockdown views, and they’re quite lively.

Anger at the church over lockdowns could be a factor for people deciding to drop Mass attendance completely in some places. I know some people have told me that—but I also know that there were a lot of other factors coming into play that influenced their final decision.

Mass attendance Australia - The catholic weekly
Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

The really interesting thing was that I also found out what made a Mass-going Catholic more likely to come back to church on a regular basis. There was a sort of “cascade” of factors.

First of all, you had to be a regular Mass-goer before COVID-19. Then, you had to have preferred real-life worship over virtual worship during church closures.

Real-life worship meant things like small prayer groups, attending Mass with limited numbers, and receiving the sacraments individually. Virtual worship didn’t seem to have the same “pullback” factor to church afterwards.

People who preferred virtual worship were less likely to come back to Mass once churches re-opened, and less likely to worship at the same frequency as before.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned here. Next time we have a pandemic, we have some tough choices to make, and we need to have learned from our experiences the last time around.

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