COVER STORY: As Mass attendance declines, what can be done to bring people back

Last Updated on October 24, 2021 by Editor


When Salvie Perritano and Carmen Nease met several years ago, attending weekend Mass was not a priority.

Though both were baptized and attended Mass regularly as young children, they each eventually found themselves growing further away and stopped coming to church.

“Shortly before turning 6 years old, my father married into the Episcopalian Church,” Salvie said. “I used to spend every other weekend at my grandmother’s house. … (When) I was at gram’s I went to Mount Carmel.  

“When I got into my mid-teens, I didn’t spend weekends at gram’s anymore. My father and stepmother didn’t go to church as often as when I was younger. The older I grew, I became disenfranchised with the concept of religion. I still very much believed in God but didn’t see the need for this man-made institution. The growing controversy surrounding the Catholic Church certainly fueled that fire.”

Salvie and Carmen are among millions of people who strayed from church over the last several decades as Mass attendance has declined severely in the United States. The question: Can anything be done to reverse the trend?

Before COVID 19 struck, 21.1 percent of American Catholics attended Mass every week, compared with 54.9 percent in 1970, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In addition, the percentage of Catholics who say they are a member of a church has dropped nearly 20 points since 2000, according to a March 2021 Gallup poll.

Among those who said they were Catholic, 58 percent said they were a member of a church. This figure is down 18 points from the 76 percent of Catholics who said they were a member of the church in a Gallup poll from 1998-2000.

In the past decade, Catholics saw a twice-as-steep decline in members than did Protestants, which saw a 9 percent decline in professed members from 73 percent to 64 percent.

The decline is not limited to the Catholic Church.

According to the Gallup report, overall membership in houses of worship has continued its pre-existing decline in the U.S., reaching a record-low point of 47 percent in the survey conducted from 2018-2020.

One couple’s story

Carmen’s story is similar to other absent Catholics.

“I attended Mass as regularly as my parents did (all the main holidays) or the extra times when I would visit my grandmother for the weekend,” she said. “I was baptized as a child but never took the regular religion classes. As a child I always remembered asking why did we have to stand and kneel so much. I loved pulling out the choir book and finding the songs so I could sing along with the choir. (I) always wanted to be able to do Communion like everyone else, but not understanding why I couldn’t. Believing so whole heartedly in God and that He was always there for me, I was taught and raised as a Christian but wasn’t fully brought into the church as some families are raised into them.”

Things changed when Carmen became an adult.

“As a young adult, I became a young single parent,” she said. “It wasn’t that I let faith go. It was trying to work, raise a child, and remembering what day of the week it was was hard enough, let alone trying to go to church. I never stopped having faith in the Lord or trying to remember to have time for him, but the pressures of life caused me to not have the time. So, coming to church other than for Christmas Mass or Easter wasn’t a priority.”

Things changed for this couple when they started dating in August 2017 and eventually married in October 2019.

“I don’t know if you could categorize it as a calling or not, but there were a few factors that came into play at the same time,” Salvie said. “I had started to date Carmen. …. God was important to her, though she had a mixed religious background as I did. Also, my niece was going to be going through her Confirmation and had asked me to be her sponsor. She is someone who is very important to me, and I wanted to be able to say yes. But to do that, I needed to be confirmed myself, a sacrament I had not partaken in up this point. I asked Carmen that if I were to undertake this venture, if she would do it with me. She happily agreed. Going through that journey together strengthened our relationship and gave us a foundation for our marriage going forward.”

The couple attends church regularly now and Salvie is a lector at the Saturday Mass.

Why the decline?

Why have people turned away from the church?

Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament pastor, the Rev. Jim Cesta, said societal changes have contributed greatly to the problem.

“We live in a practically post-Christian kind of culture,” he said. “We are enveloped in entertainment, media, teaching on all levels, especially higher education, that clearly are hostile to the teachings and values of our Christian, and especially Catholic, ways.

“The degrading of family life, separation and divorce so often seems to be rough ground for faith, Catholic traditions, holy seasons and sacraments to be nurtured,” Father Jim said. “Of course, in the last few years the revealing of scandals among clergy and other church personnel, reaching back even 50 years, have given some the amount of disappointment to leave practicing faith and our public worship.”

The Rev. Tom Servatius, former Mount Carmel parishioner and current pastor of Historic Old St. John’s Church, said many factors have over a long period of time have contributed to the decline in attendance.

“A lot has happened since 1970 — Vietnam, several Gulf conflicts, Berlin Wall, 9/11, technological advances, social media, climate change, the decline of unions, the evolving meaning of the word ‘family,’ the list goes on and on,” he said. “Meanwhile, we’ve had five very different popes leading a church which is still trying to figure out Vatican II. Historically, it takes a century or so to make sense out a council as major as that one. As we have tried to do so, our message has sometimes been mixed, and there’s been some confusion and infighting. People get plenty of that during the week. They don’t need another dose on a Sunday morning. 

“Meanwhile, other issues have turned people off from Mass attendance,” Father Tom said. “These include the sexual abuse crisis and our initially poor response to its manifestation. Clericalism, particularly when the clergy act like they are better than others, also has been quite damaging. I think there also is an issue of irrelevance, and this lays heavily on those who occupy the pulpit. Many people do not find our message to be overly relevant to their lives, and in response many have moved on to something else. Some have developed pretty sophisticated and useful spiritual lives. But they had to do so elsewhere.”

Some reasons are closer to home for many people.

“I also think that a number of people, after working a particularly stressful week, are just too mentally exhausted to deal with church,” Father Tom said. “They’re opting for sleep, quality time with loved ones, laundry, grocery shopping, working out, sports programs, etc. I’m not justifying it. It is just the reality right now.”

Father Jim said the divide is very personal for many.

“I think one of the most significant, and sad, obstacles that militate against people taking part in weekend Mass is the popular and currently growing trend to say that a person’s faith is spiritual but not ‘religious,’” he explained. “By religious they mean no need to gather in community with others or take part in ritual public shared worship. Many young people, 20s to 40s, have fallen prey to this way of making excuses. When asked of a person who professes ‘no faith’ puts into practice their ‘spiritual’ life, usually there is no answer. The Good Lord always gathered folks to a special place and made it sacred, many times a table. We are summoned and invited to the table of the altar in the company of our brothers and sisters in faith.”

What can be done?

We all know people — even family and friends — who have strayed from church. What can we do to encourage them to return?

“My suggestion for encouraging practice of the faith is to remind them that the table for Thanksgiving or Christmas, your parents’ anniversary dinner, a family birthday all would be lacking, not as good, without you,” Father Jim said. “We are at our best when we are gathered together, especially at the table of the Lord.

“I tell Confirmation-age young people that God gives us 168 hours each week … God only asks for one hour a week to offer thanks and worship. If I give a young person $168 and only ask for $1 in return, isn’t that a very good deal?”

Father Tom said too often we embrace a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to evangelization.

“We need to avoid engaging people with where we think they are, or where we think they should be,” he said. “Instead, start with where the people actually are and accept them for where they actually are. This applies to all aspects of parish life, not just Confirmation programs.

“All of us — not just the hierarchy, not just the priests — but all of us need to talk less and listen more,” he added. “This should apply to anyone we encounter, regardless of age. Talk less. Listen more. Indeed, we need a solidarity with those who are not coming to Mass. Sure, there are good things we can teach them. But there is much they can teach us as well.”

Salvie and Carmen also offered advice.

“Try to zoom out and see the bigger picture,” Salvie said. “It’s not always easy and it’s not always immediately obvious. See the value in community and coming together and building relationships with God as a foundation. God is in what we do and what we give to each other.” 

His wife agrees.

“God has a way reaching of out to say, ‘You need me, you need to hear my words and you need my family for strength,’” Carmen said. “Listen. There is a reason He is calling you. The more we allow Him in our lives the more of a blessing He brings to us. He knows we all wander, but he forgives and allows us to come back. So don’t think because it’s been so long that he won’t be there for you. He’s always there. He’s just waiting and calling. Just listen.”

(Note: Salvie Perritano is the writer’s nephew.)