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.


"Headless" Catholics, A Trick and My Treat

Did you attend Mass this October? If you did not attend this month you don't need a costume tonight. You are already a "headless" Catholic. Most dioceses do October Mass attendance headcounts. This allows them to track the number of Catholics year over year going to Mass. Some dioceses publicize these. Others do not. While CARA and others track Mass attendance in national surveys, these are often done at different times of year. We know that nationally, Mass attendance has been steady for about a dozen years. But how does Catholic Mass attendance vary week to week?

Since we know so much about Mass attendance in October let's start there. Not only does CARA have its national surveys of adult Catholics, we also have in-pew surveys of Catholics, and surveys of pastors where we ask for their parish's October headcount numbers. These can set the October baseline of our week to week Mass attendance estimates. But then how do we know how many attend in February or June? There are a few other pieces of information we can use. CARA has asked about Mass attendance on Ash Wednesday and we've also asked about Christmas and Easter. Our national surveys estimate that about 45% percent of Catholics attend on Ash Wednesday and about 68% attend at Christmas.

To get estimates for other weeks we are taking a page from new methods used by hedge funds and the Centers for Disease Control for prediction and tracking. We've looked to Google Trends (...after first noticing the utility of this tool in 2009). You can learn a lot from what people are searching for on the most popular web site in the world. We arguably have never had so much data for what is on people's minds. Google Trends has been shown (1, 2, 3) to be predictive of car sales, opening movie box offices, unemployment claims, travel trends, the geography of Lyme disease, and so much more. Can it predict Mass attendance? Yes.

We tried several different combinations of Mass related search terms. In the end a simple two word combination worked best: "Mass times." There is a core of the self-identified Catholic population that attends Mass every week. What makes Mass attendance rise above this core are those attending monthly or only on days of obligation. When these individuals choose to attend they are often checking in with Google to see what time (and perhaps where) they need to go. What happens when we use Google Trends search volume data for "Mass times" to put our known October data points in motion? Something extraordinary. It "predicts" Ash Wednesday and Christmas attendance that is nearly identical to our survey-based estimates (...Easter is a bit lower than we expected. This may be related to Easter coinciding with Spring Break and vacations away from local parishes for some Catholics). It also shows the upticks we expect on other days of obligation. This is shown in the figure below (click to see full-size).

We use multiple years of U.S. Google Trends data to generate this figure. In doing so, we have made Easter an "immovable feast" for demonstration purposes (averaging Ash Wednesday and Easter attendance into single weeks). One can see that the lowest levels of Mass attendance are typically during February before Ash Wednesday and in November before Advent. Outside of Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday the next highest level of of attendance is estimated to be in August for the Assumption of Mary. On average, across all weeks Mass attendance is estimated to be 26%. In October, we estimate that about 80% of self-identified Catholics are "headless." 

"A Trick"

Now for something completely different... Last week I gave a brief introductory presentation before a Georgetown viewing of The Exorcist. I am also teaching a class this semester on Catholicism on film and we spend a week looking at The Exorcist and other Catholic "horror" related films (...even though William Peter Blatty has said his intention was not to scare audiences).

What is most interesting to me is the historical connection between Georgetown and the film. Blatty, a Georgetown alum, became interested in the real story behind the film as a student. He like many others read this piece in The Washington Post by Bill Brinkley about the case in 1949 (documenting "one of the most remarkable experiences of its kind in recent religious history"). He ended up doing a thesis on the case and acquired a copy of the Jesuit case study for the boy named Ronald (this is often referred to as a "diary"). The film, and the book on which it is based, have little resemblance to the case study. Some of this was likely intentional to protect Ronald's identity (in the movie the child is named Regan and in real life the pseudonyms Robbie and Roland were often used). But other aspects, including much of the most gruesome horror and nearly all of the Georgetown connection was invented.

Here is an example of a story in the Catholic press that mirrors the "real story" that many people have come to know. This example was written in 1998. A year later, Mark Opsasnick, a local author and journalist, would uncover a very different story and even track down the adult Ronald living in Maryland and speak to him by phone (the last known public record related to Ronald is a 2006 traffic ticket) as well as one of the priests involved. Opsasnick's work has been used as a model for community-based investigative journalism in some college courses. He used phone books, property records, school yearbooks, and interviews with people in the community to track down a treasure of unknown details about the case. Like Blatty, he also came across a copy of the Jesuit case study. You can as well if you look hard enough. The copy I found is consistent with other descriptions I've read of the document but I cannot attest to its authenticity.

If tonight is like many past Halloweens, some will gravitate to a lot on Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier, Maryland. This is thought by many to be the place of Ronald's childhood home. As Opsasnick has shown, no boy resided in this home and his actual residence in 1949 was in nearby Cottage City (pictured above). The house used in the film on Georgetown's Prospect Street was only used for its exteriors and its proximity to the famous stairs. You can also find a now well known picture of Ronald if you look hard enough. It's his senior photo from a famous D.C. Catholic high school (he was raised Lutheran but converted to Catholicism). The "real" story has a much happier ending than the film version. First, no Jesuits were killed or even injured (other than perhaps a punch in the nose). Second, Ronald went on to live a "normal" life, with a career and family (...not entirely normal as he has reportedly been contacted by a few fans of the film who have "connected the dots" from Opsasnick's research) .

What the film and the former version of the "real story" get wrong is the strong Georgetown connection. According to the Jesuit case study I am aware of, Ronald's mother asked Fr. Albert Hughes, a parish priest at St. James Catholic Church in Mt. Rainer for help. He suggested using blessed candles, holy water, and prayers. He sought permission from his archbishop to perform an exorcism ( modern times, the Church has always viewed claims of possession with skepticism and required medical and psychological examinations). Ronald was admitted to Georgetown Hospital for evaluation. However, it was unlikely that Fr. Hughes had yet received any permission for exorcism (as noted below he would later receive this). There is no record of an initial exorcism at Georgetown in the case study (... thus, there is also no note of Fr. Hughes being stabbed in the arm with a bed spring at the hospital).

Ronald's family soon left to stay with relatives in St. Louis before anything else could happen in Georgetown. There, the boy came under the care of Jesuits at Saint Louis University. Permission was eventually given by the local archbishop to perform an exorcism. This did commence. At some point the family wished to return to Maryland. By this time permission had also been given locally for an exorcism. However, the Jesuit case study notes that the priests involved "tried several hospitals in Washington, but because of the nature of the case no one was willing to accept the burden." The family eventually returned to St. Louis and an Alexian Brothers Hospital and the exorcism was completed.

According to the case study, what the film and the real real story share is that the teenager played with a Ouija board and initially experienced "tantrum sleep" from which the boy could not easily be awoken. A variety of other strange phenomenon are reported in the case study but these were not directly witnessed by the priests (...however, the boy's family, his teacher and classmates, as well as Lutheran clergy did). During exorcism, Ronald is said to have exhibited "diabolical spitting" and "biting." There was "bed shaking" with "tantrum" where "strength beyond the natural power" of the teen was exhibited (in some cases it took three to five others to hold him down). Ronald used Latin, which he did not know, but it is noted that he may have been mimicking the priests. There was "violent shouting and fiendish laughter" including very foul and sexual language. There is one report of an object moving by the priests ("bottle from a dresser [moved] across the room"). Ronald said he had visions of a priest in the room being in Hell in the future. The case study reports "body markings" and "brandings." However, some possibility of these being produced by the teen is noted. There was no head spinning, levitation, or spider walking down stairs.

Hollywood frequently has to go over the top with history to make a film entertaining and compelling. However, if you read the journalism about the exorcism produced in the last decade it is just as fascinating in my opinion. For me, the most reassuring aspects of reading Opsasnick's research and the final notes of the case study is that Ronald went on to live a seemingly normal life. No matter what one's opinion is of this case, that seems to be the most important result.

I also find it weird that some Catholics seem to believe the film is sacrilegious. Blatty was and is a devout Catholic. Georgetown rarely gives permission for movies to be filmed on campus (e.g., St. Elmo's Fire was shot at University of Maryland). More so, the U.S. bishops are on record as not considering it "morally offensive." They note is is "strictly adult fare" and that it is "on shaky ground theologically" but Catholics are not in any way "banned" from seeing it... or digging a bit into history to see what really inspired the film.

To my surprise, reviewing survey data before my talk, I also found that belief in the Devil (and Hell) in the United States is actually on the rise. If this is occurring more specifically among Catholics as well this may foreshadow fewer headless Catholics in the future.

"My Treat"
I won't be needing any candy tonight. I already have the treat I need in the photo below. I grew up in Denver Colorado in the 1970s which afflicted me with Bronco super-fandom. The best man at my wedding in his toast noted he had seen me at my happiest twice; marrying my wife and in the minutes after Super Bowl XXXII. Imagine my surprise yesterday seeing this:

This is the wife of Broncos Def. Coordinator Jack Del Rio, Linda, giving Pope Francis a football signed by the Denver Broncos (...oddly enough one of my Georgetown students, doing an independent study on the Vatican and in my film class as well was present with this group, The Patrons of The Arts in the Vatican Museums). I know Pope Francis is a fan of Club Atl├ętico San Lorenzo de Almagro. American Football is not his game. But perhaps handing a ball off to Pope Francis for a moment could be a sign of more happiest moments to come (...we tried Tim Tebow and he only got us one miraculous playoff win, "The 3:16 game").

"Headless" image courtesy of Ben in CHI. Pope Francis image courtesy of Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.

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