Diocesan Mass Attendance is Up But Still Down
By Penny Wiegert, Editor
April 27, 2023
DIOCESE—Falling church attendance seems to be a cloud that hangs over all churches and all faiths in our country.  But the old saying goes that every dark cloud has a silver lining. And that seems to be true for the Rockford Diocese.
According to Kevin Fuss, director of the Office of Research and Planning, the annual Mass count numbers compiled for 2022 provide a little light in that cloud for the Diocese of Rockford.
Results from the count taken in October 2022 showed that Mass attendance increased in all deaneries in the Rockford Diocese. The total increase in in-person Mass attendance was 10 percent over 2021. 
Fuss is quick to point out that even though the numbers are positive and moving in a good direction “overall Mass attendance numbers are still not what they were pre-COVID.”  Even though Mass count numbers were up, attendance is still 73% of what it was before the pandemic shut down Masses in March 2020. 
Fuss said that during COVID, there were 60 parishes who offered online Masses with over 24,000 views each week.  At the time, that was a critical way for the faithful to stay connected to their parish and to the Church.  Those numbers dropped to 36 parishes and about 7,000 views as people began returning to in-person Sunday Mass in 2021.  In 2022, the number of parishes with an online Mass dropped further to 31 with about 6,200 views.  
“As we continued to emerge from COVID, people felt more comfortable coming into church, and this shift away from virtual Masses reflected that,” Fuss told The Observer. 
He also reported that the Diocese of Rockford “has not been immune from the larger national trend of declining Mass attendance.”   
And that trend is for all religions. According to the latest Pew Research study the share of Americans who attend religious services at least monthly has declined slightly since the pre-pandemic year of 2019. The Pew report found a change in habits among all religious Americans but especially among black Protestants. 
The Pew report found that 30 percent of Americans in 2022 said they attended religious services at least once a month, compared to 33 percent of Americans who answered that way in 2019, the year before the pandemic. Both groups were asked the same question: 
“Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services?” Americans were given six choices: more than once a week, once a week, once or twice a month, a few times a year, seldom and never.
Pew calls it a modest but measurable drop. 
“It is not clear whether the dip is continuing a longer-term trend or mostly reflects the short-term impact of the pandemic on religious Americans,” Pew said in an online analysis.
Even so, the pandemic impacted the habits of all religious groups, including white evangelical Protestants (63 percent in 2019, 58 percent in 2022), non-evangelical white Protestants (31 percent in 2019, 28 percent in 2022), Catholics (37 percent in 2019, 34 percent in 2022) and Jewish individuals (26 percent in 2019, 23 percent in 2022).
COVID seemed to accelerate a trend away from religious affiliation, Fuss says, and he thinks this is especially true for younger people “who, perhaps, lack the proper formation, especially if they do not believe in the Real Presence.”  
Fuss is not alone in his estimation. According to a 2021 analysis by Gallup, church membership (all denominations) is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists — U.S. adults born before 1946 — belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.
According to Gallup the decline in church membership appears largely tied to population change, with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong. The change has become increasingly apparent in recent decades because millennials and Gen Z are further apart from traditionalists in their church membership rates (about 30 points lower) than baby boomers and Generation X are (eight and 16 points, respectively). Also, each year the younger generations are making up an increasingly larger part of the entire U.S. adult population.
The Diocese of Rockford has made a direct effort in inviting people back to church with 30 second ads on social and digital media platforms along with television and radio. The campaign was a gentle reminder, in a post-COVID world, that churches are open and waiting for participation — a message particularly important for Catholics and their relationship with the Eucharistic belief.
Fuss said  “inviting those who don’t attend regularly couldn’t be more important and I know we’ve been doing that, especially inviting people back this Lent. The National Eucharistic Revival that culminates in the Eucharistic Congress next summer is also an attempt to re-emphasize the ‘source and summit of our faith’ and increase the love and belief in the Real Presence.  It’s hoped that this will have a direct effect on Mass attendance as well.”
Fuss also pointed out the change in Spanish Mass attendance. In 2000 attendance at Spanish Masses was just under 10%. However, Fuss reports that the overall trend since that time has been upward and attendance at Spanish Masses now represents 30% of total Mass attendance.  This has helped mitigate some of the losses in the non-Spanish Masses (See chart above).
The Diocese of Rockford takes a count at all Masses at all churches over two weekends every October and has conducted a Mass count since 1996.  
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