Mass attendance in the archdiocese on weekends rebounded from last year’s COVID-impacted numbers. More than half of the pre-pandemic losses in attendance recovered this year.
Of the 172 parishes that reported, 169 showed an increase over last year, with 19 mostly small or rural parishes recovering to pre-COVID levels of Mass attendance. Attendance went from 12.5% of registered Catholics attending Mass on Sundays last year to 20%, though it’s shy of the figure from 2019, 26.8%.
The pandemic made annual Mass counts especially important this year, as a way of understanding its impact on faith communities. The Mass counts took place on the weekends of Oct. 10-11, 17-18 and 24-25, with pastors having the leeway to substitute another weekend if there was an event or other reason that would affect the results.
John Schwob, director of pastoral planning for the archdiocese, said “we made up more than half of the gap, what we lost last year during COVID. I still think there’s room to grow. Some pastors have told me they see a slight continual increase. COVID issues are still there. Some people are not willing to come back to Mass since this all started.”
Generally, the largest parishes in the archdiocese were below the average percentage of registered parishioners attending. “Larger parishes have less Mass attendance than small parishes,” Schwob said. “That’s been consistent ever since we started doing Mass attendance. If you’re in a large parish you’re more anonymous. If you’re in a small parish, if you’re not there on Sunday, people wonder where you’re at, if you’re OK.”
Mass counts began 11 years ago with the Catholics Come Home campaign, measuring its impact, with a count before and after the campaign. A significant rise in attendance resulted, but without a follow-up program, it dissipated by the following year. “We’ve been doing this because it’s important to know whether we’re effective in our evangelization efforts. Part of evangelization is getting people back to church,” Schwob said.
When parishes see Mass attendance decline, they could make some moves to bring people back — a welcoming effort, for example, Schwob said.
Parishes also were asked to report the number of livestream views for each of the weekend Masses.
Father Bob Evans, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Maryland Heights, said he believes many people are still fearful of gathering in large groups because of COVID. “When we took our Mass counts, I was surprised by how many people are watching it on YouTube,” he said. “It was probably a third of the number of people in church. It’s important to help me continue understand how concerned people are about this pandemic.”
Because of the pandemic, the parish reached out by phone several times to ask people how they’re doing. Holy Spirit has several extraordinary ministers of the Holy Eucharist who take Communion to those who are not able to attend Mass. “Keeping track of the Mass counts helps us know where the people are,” Father Evans said.
Father Jim Benz, pastor of St. Cletus Parish in St. Charles, has tracked the number of communicants at Mass for the past 17 years. His data shows a decline in communicants, which tracks with decline over 11 years of Mass counts in the archdiocese. “It’s a remarkable shifting of numbers,” he said. “It’s probably commentary of where we are as a Church, as a society, as a culture.”
The question to explore, he said, is why there’s been such a drop-off.