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.


Views from the Pews: What U.S. Catholic Mass Attenders Say about their Parishes

Most Catholics sitting in the pews of U.S. Catholic churches say their overall satisfaction with their parish is “good” or “excellent.” Yet, fewer than one in five “strongly agrees” that they have a role in parish decision-making. 

The Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, a Lilly Endowment Inc. funded collaboration of five Catholic national ministerial organizations, is releasing results from a landmark series of surveys of Catholics conducted in-pew during Mass by CARA. A total of 14,437 interviews were conducted for Emerging Models in 2011 and 2012 and are supplemented by 371,863 additional interviews conducted by CARA using the same or similar questions in recent years. Full results are available in the report, Views from the Pews: Parishioner Evaluations of Parish Life in the United States, which will also be posted next week on (...consider this a “sneak preview”).

As we’ve shown previously, there are about 36.5 million U.S. Catholics who attend Mass at least once a month. This is the parishioner population sampled and studied by the project (...rather than the larger population of self-identified Catholics). A majority of the surveyed parishioners, 58%, rated their overall satisfaction with their parish as “excellent” (a combined 94% rated this as “good” or “excellent”). Parishioners were more likely than U.S. parish leaders (i.e., paid staff, volunteers, and committee members) surveyed in an earlier phase of the project to evaluate their parish positively.

Parishioners were more positive than parish leaders in their evaluations of how well the parish spreads the Gospel and evangelizes, their parish’s hospitality and sense of welcome to all, the parish’s promotion of important Church teachings and causes, and for the vision provided by parish leaders.

Parishioners were also asked what attracts them to their parish. Top responses centered on issues of community and the celebration of Mass. Two-thirds (67%) cited their parish’s open, welcoming spirit as attracting them “very much.” Fewer, but more than six in ten say the same for: the quality of the liturgy (63%), the quality of the preaching (63%), and the sense of belonging they feel in the parish (62%). Majorities also cited the following as attracting them “very much”: the quality of the music (53%), the beauty of the church (52%), and the opportunities for spiritual growth in the parish (51%).

What attracts parishioners is very important because 35% of respondents drive by a parish closer to their home to attend the parish they were surveyed in (...preliminary data had indicated this was 31%). Thus, many parishioners are self-selecting where they attend rather than just going to their territorial parish. Younger parishioners are more likely than older parishioners to drive by a closer parish. For example, 39% of Millennials (born after 1981) and 35% of Post-Vatican II (born 1961 to 1981) generation parishioners report doing so. By comparison, 31% of Vatican II (born 1943 to 1960) and 28% of Pre-Vatican II (born before 1943) generation parishioners drive by closer parishes to get to where they attend Mass.

Overall, about eight in ten Mass-attenders (79%) are registered with their parish. Millennials in the pews are significantly less likely than the oldest parishioners of the Pre-Vatican II Generation to register with their parish (54% compared to 87%). The most recent CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) indicates that only 55% of U.S. self-identified Catholics (of any age and regardless of Mass attendance) are registered with their parish (down from 59% in 2005). Fewer and fewer Catholics in the pews or out of them are choosing to register with a parish.

Nearly all parishioners (92%) agree that they would feel comfortable talking to their pastor or PLC (55% “strongly agree”; a PLC or parish life coordinator is a lay person or permanent deacon who has been entrusted with the pastoral care of a parish when a priest is not available, Canon 517.2). Yet, less than half “strongly agree” that they feel well informed about parish finances (38%), are comfortable sharing staff with neighborhood parishes (37%), that the parish has sufficient qualified staff (36%), or that they have a role in parish decision-making (18%). Only one in three (29%) “strongly agree” that pastoral council members are accessible to them.

The average age of teen and adult parishioners in the pews (including those ages 14 and older) is 52. About one in ten adults (9%) are of the Millennial Generation. Nearly four in ten (39%) are members of the Post-Vatican II Generation and more than a third (35%) are of the Vatican II Generation. Eighteen percent of adults are of the Pre-Vatican II Generation.

Three in four Catholics in the pews (74%) describe themselves as an active Catholic since birth. Eleven percent left the Church for a time and have now returned (...preliminary data had indicated this was 13%). Eleven percent converted to Catholicism as an adult. Two percent describe themselves as inactive Catholics and another 2% are non-Catholic (...often a spouse of a Catholic parishioner).

Self-reported frequency of Mass attendance varies among several parishioner sub-groups surveyed in-pew. The table below shows these differences in a “thermometer format,” with those most frequently attending at the top of the table and those attending less often at the bottom. Weekly and monthly attendance percentages for parishioners in each group are shown. Monthly attendance is similar for all sub-groups. This is not surprising as all were surveyed while attending Mass. Most of the variation between groups is based on their weekly attendance, with older and less educated Catholics being more likely than younger and more educated Catholics to attend weekly or more often. Again, as one would expect, Catholics surveyed in-pew have much higher attendance rates than all self-identified Catholics nationally (67% compared to 32%, in any given week outside of Lent and Advent, as estimated by the 2012 CARA Catholic Poll. About 24% of self-identified Catholics attend Mass every week).

Background of the study
The Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project was founded to address a variety of issues facing U.S. Catholic parish leadership in a rapidly changing social environment. These issues include multicultural and generational diversity; ministry in linked parishes; and various roles and dimensions of lay ecclesial ministry. The Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project is a collaborative undertaking of the National Association for Lay Ministry (NALM), the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development (CPPCD), the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators (NACPA), the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association (NCYAMA), and the National Federation of Priests’ Councils (NFPC). 

The Lilly Endowment Inc. funded the collaboration of five Catholic national ministerial organizations in 2009. The Project commissioned CARA to conduct a series of three surveys in parishes nationwide. The first of these was a single informant survey with pastors and PLCs about parish life and demography in 846 randomly selected U.S. parishes. This research was released in the report, Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes in July 2011. The second survey included responses from 532 parish leaders (paid and volunteers) in 246 parishes selected from the project parish sample. This research was released in the report, Perspectives from Parish Leaders: U.S. Parish Life and Ministry in August 2012. The final survey, summarized and linked above, is based on the responses of 14,437 parishioners surveyed in-pew in 23 randomly selected parishes from the project parish sample. These data are supplemented and compared to 371,863 responses from 788 similar parish surveys recently conducted by CARA throughout the United States. This likely represents the largest known sample of Catholics ever surveyed in pew to date.

Photo above courtesy of Abraxas3d from Flickr Commons. 

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