Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future

[This post has been updated to reflect data for 2010]

Was your church full on Christmas? Catholics are more likely to attend Mass on Christmas/Christmas Eve than any other day of the year (followed closely by Ash Wednesday and Easter) and there is evidence that this past Thursday/Friday may have had attendance rates higher than Christmases in recent years. 

Google searches for “Mass times” were nearly three times higher (2.86x) last week than in the average week from 2004 to 2009 and these exceeded the search volumes of other recent Christmas weeks (for more information see: Searching for Mass online…).

Mass at Christmas, more than any other time of year, provides a glimpse of what the Catholic Church might look like on a weekly basis if the decline in Mass attendance from the late-1950s peak had never occurred.

In 1957-58, Gallup surveys estimate that 74% of adult Catholics attended Church in an average week.  By comparison, today, CARA estimates that 31% of adult Catholics attend Mass in any given week (for more information see: The Nuances of Accurately Measuring Mass Attendance). However, CARA surveys also indicate that 68% of adult Catholics attend Mass at least “a few times a year”—most likely representing Christmas, Ash Wednesday, and/or Easter.

CARA estimates that about 22.1 million Catholics (adults and children) attend Mass at least once a week other than on these holidays or other days of obligation (for more information see: Searching for Mass online…).  Yet when 68% of Catholics attend Mass on a given weekend in 2009, parishes need to make room for about 47.9 million attendees. This begs the question, “Is there room at the inn?”

Given recent changes in numbers of parishes and normal variations in the number of Masses offered, the current weekend seating capacity of the Catholic Church in the United States (the aggregated number of seats x number of Masses per parish) is difficult to know. However, this can be estimated using data from CARA’s National Parish Inventory (NPI) a database of parish life in the United States. The NPI includes information about the seating capacity and number of Masses in more than 7 in 10 U.S. parishes (seating capacity for 71% of parishes and number of Masses for 78% of parishes). To make the estimates described below we have imputed missing data at the parish-level with regional averages (Census-9) for seats and number of Masses. Further, we have adjusted the overall total capacity down to account for the number of parish closings and mergers that have occurred in recent years (a reduction of 5.9%) since much of the NPI data were collected.

Using these methods we estimate that the building seating capacity of Catholic parishes in the United States include spots for about 8.8 million people and there are about 63,800 Saturday Vigil and Sunday Masses in an average week (… in October, a period outside of the summer vacation season and within Ordinary Time for the Church).  Using the NPI data, we can thus estimate that the total weekend seating capacity for the Catholic Church is currently about 33.4 million.  In other words, on an average weekend, 66.3% of seats are filled (by an estimated 22.1 million attendees).  On such a weekend the average number of Saturday Vigil and Sunday Masses per parish is 3.6 with an average church seating capacity of 492.

If 68% of Catholics attend Mass in a given weekend, such as at Christmas, more often than not parishes must increase the number of Masses scheduled to deal with the estimated 47.9 million attendees nationally. On an average weekend, there is one Mass for every 347 Mass attending Catholics.  To maintain this same ratio at the higher attendance level of 68%, the number of weekend Masses offered needs to more than double to about 138,000.

Currently the Catholic Church, on most weekends, is more than able to meet Mass attendance demands.  However, this excess capacity in Ordinary Time may only be momentary. The long decline in Mass attendance rates have halted and CARA has not identified any further declines since we began polling adult Catholics nationally in 2000 (for more information see: The Nuances of Accurately Measuring Mass Attendance).  As the Catholic population grows—even at a Mass attendance rate of 31%—the physical capacity of the Catholic Church (e.g., number of parishes, seats, and Masses) will also need to grow.  This will undoubtedly buck the recent trends towards parish closures and mergers and create even more pressure on priests in the United States who are also declining in number. After all there are only so many priests and so many hours in a day and thus there are real limits to simply increasing the number of Masses offered (and meet parishioner preferences for attending Mass at specific times).

Imagine this scenario 25 years in the future: A) the Catholic population grows 25% (as it has since 1985—also note that this implies relative stability with Catholics continuing to be about 23% or 24% of the total U.S. population), B) Mass attendance rates remain at the plateau of 31% (as they have for nearly a decade), C) that the typical number of Masses and number of seats per parish remains unchanged, and D) that the number of parishes declines at a 6.2% per decade rate (as it did from 2000 to 2009).

If this were to occur, the number of Mass attending Catholics per parish would increase from 1,233 today to 1,866 in 2035 while the total weekend seating capacity will drop to 27.6 million. The number of seats filled at Masses in an average week would essentially rise to capacity in 2035. Yet with higher Mass attendance rates during Advent and Lent the scenario above predicts a real seating crisis.  The Church would likely need to allocate tickets for Christmas Masses in 2035 (on a Tuesday by the way) to manage demand as there literally will not be enough “room at the inn.”

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