As Pentecost Nears, Catholics Come Home to Sunday Mass

Personal invitation, a strong sense of community and intentional discipleship seen as key in parishes that have brought people back to Sunday Mass.

Eucharistic procession at St. Charles Catholic Church.
Eucharistic procession at St. Charles Catholic Church. (photo: St. Charles Catholic Church)

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — With Connecticut’s governor removing all restrictions on indoor gatherings, with the exception of wearing a mask, starting May 19, the state’s Catholic bishops have now moved to end the pandemic-related dispensation from Sunday Mass attendance by Pentecost.

“I come to you in this moment of growing optimism and hope to extend a heartfelt invitation to everyone who is listening to me,” Bishop Frank Caggiano of the Diocese of Bridgeport said in a video. “Come home to the Lord in our Father’s house, and join our sisters and brothers who are already worshipping each Sunday in person, so that we can, as a family, be reunited again.”

The Connecticut bishops’ decision to remove the dispensation from in-person worship on Sunday follows in the wake of having the ability to return to 100% indoor capacity, while wearing a mask, but also steady numbers of Catholics returning to the pews now that COVID case counts are down and vaccinations are up.

In a May 10 letter to the faithful, the Connecticut Latin Rite Catholic bishops announced they would lift the general dispensation from Sunday Mass attendance for Catholics who are healthy. The bishops also made clear that persons with preexisting conditions at high risk for COVID-19, or ill and homebound persons, or caregivers in close contact with them, or persons with any contagious illness, or persons who have to isolate due to exposure to someone contagious, are not obligated to attend Mass.

“For anyone facing these circumstances, please remember the Lord will never invite you to do something that poses a danger to oneself or others,” they said. The bishops encouraged pastors to continue livestreaming Masses so people who are absent can still connect digitally with the larger in-person community in Sunday worship. 

John Grosso, director of digital media for the Diocese of Bridgeport, told the Register the steady numbers of people returning to Mass are tracking Connecticut’s rising vaccination rate and improving COVID case numbers, and they expect that to “continue with the restoration of the obligation.” But Grosso explained that demonstrating the Church’s “clear commitment to safety” was “essential” — along with a warm, familial invitation — to the increasing the numbers of Catholics returning to the pews.

“We’ve coupled this commitment to safety with invitational language and a welcoming spirit, following the lead of our bishop,” he said. “We call ourselves a spiritual family in our diocese, and no family is complete until everyone is at the table.” 

As Catholic dioceses across the country start to lift the dispensation, whether the Sunday obligation makes a substantial difference in Catholic attendance numbers remains to be seen. A survey of Hawaiian Catholic parishes found the answer to whether Mass attendance had gone back to pre-COVID “normal” after the Sunday dispensation was lifted on Easter Sunday was a combination of “yes, no, maybe so.” The Hawaii Catholic Herald’s reporting did not indicate any return in droves with the lifting of the dispensation: Many parishes at pre-COVID levels indicated most of their people had returned before Easter Sunday, and other parishes that saw spikes at Easter Sunday found their Mass attendance settle back to where they were prior to the dispensation’s removal.  


Sowing in Pandemic, Reaping Post-Pandemic 

A number of Catholic parishes are seeing success in bringing Catholics back to Mass through a combination of active engagement and outreach and cultivating a parish culture of discipleship and evangelization, in addition to people’s rising confidence in the health situation. 

Catholic parishioner Kathleen McClellan returned to Mass for the first time since the pandemic on April 25. Being at higher risk for COVID-19, getting her Moderna vaccination gave her the confidence to return to in-person worship.

“Once I got the vaccine, I felt like I was good to go,” she said. “Things are moving forward and going to church is critical. If you feel safe to go into Walmart, you should feel safe to go to church, and especially with vaccines now.”

But McClellan also said her pastor, Father Nicholas DuPré, and his team at their small Catholic parish of 450 souls, which includes St. Joseph Catholic Church and the St. Louis Mission Chapel in Parks, Louisiana, made every creative effort to keep the parish family connected as a Catholic community and with the sacraments, particularly through livestreaming Mass, Chaplets of Divine Mercy, the Rosary, and holding outdoor confessions, even in the brutal Louisiana heat. 

The Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, in which the Parks Catholic parish is located, is set to restore the Sunday obligation on June 6, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. 

Because of the parish’s sustained engagement, McClellan said most people (other than those with serious health risks) have returned to Sunday Mass already, and so she did not believe the obligation restoration would make a big difference in terms of numbers.

“I knew we had to hustle,” Father DuPré said. “It was the time for the church to shine.”

Father DuPré said the parish has grown, with many more kids in the parish. In addition, the parish did not have to cut any staff, increased staff pay, and hired an organist — thanks to everyone’s sacrificial giving.

But Father DuPré indicated that some people in the Church may need their bishops to give an apology, and not just an invitation, to get them back to Mass. The pastor has parishioners whose relationship with the Church is wounded because they felt hurt by the bishops’ decision to close churches, restrict the sacraments, and inhibit even outdoor Rosary and drive-in adoration gatherings, when the COVID-19 pandemic looked pretty desperate and they looked to the Church to help them get through it. 

The priest is still reaching out and checking on them to show the Church cares for them. 

“Many of the faithful still cannot understand how they could be denied what gives them hope in the face of death in a pandemic,” he said, adding that even priests struggle with feelings of guilt and shame for receiving the Eucharist when the faithful could not and not being able to do more. 


Near and Long-Term Issues

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted Catholics who were already going to Mass every Sunday. But the vast majority of self-identified Catholics were not regularly attending weekly Sunday Mass before the pandemic shut down the churches and Sunday worship dispensations went into effect in 2020.

In the near term, bishops’ invitations are mainly likely to appeal to Catholics who are still engaged with Sunday Mass. 

According to “1964,” the research blog for Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), “Mass participation or engagement has been more consistent” between pre-COVID and post-COVID levels, 27% and 22% of Catholics respectively, either attending or viewing Mass per week. 

But the vast majority of Catholics were missing from their churches before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to CARA data published in Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century, out of 78 million self-identified Catholics, only 18.7 million attended Mass every week, and 38.2 million “parish-connected” Catholics attended at least once a month. 

Part of the challenge for parishes today is creating small-group spiritual buttresses to support “supersize” parishes that have so far vastly underperformed both small Catholic parishes and similarly sized Protestant megachurches, with comparatively low rates of attendance, sacramental participation and member retention. Pre-COVID, CARA found parishes with less than 200 households saw 79% of registered parishioners attending Mass versus parishes with more than 1,200 registered households — one out of three U.S. parishes are this size  —  seeing just 38% attend Mass. 

Saul Keeton, executive director of mission expansion at The Evangelical Catholic, a consultation group that works closely with parishes to create systemic cultures of small-group discipleship and evangelization, told the Register that parishes need to develop a stable corps of “fully activated lay disciples” — not simply recruit volunteers — who can “speak comfortably with others about their experience of Jesus, personally and in the Church.” 

“We need the laypeople that have returned to be deeply formed and trained so they can deepen relationships and conversations with people that have stopped coming to Mass, to invite them to their homes for evangelistic small groups, and to accompany them back to the sacraments at the right time,” he said. 


Bringing More Catholics Home

St. Charles Catholic Church in Hartland, Wisconsin, one of the first parishes to use Evangelical Catholic’s discipleship development model, has seen present Mass attendance exceed pre-COVID levels. In fact, the parish is breaking ground on a new church.

Peg Kasun, the worship team lead at St. Charles, told the Register parishioners “were all eager to come back to Mass, if it was safe for them to do so.” 

The parish is located in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which restored the Sunday obligation back on Sept. 14, 2020. 

Kasun said there was no noticeable increase in Mass attendance from on the archdiocese restoring the Sunday Mass obligation. Other than people who were immune-compromised or sick, all their pre-COVID parishioners (and more) were back to Sunday Mass. She credited that to the priests and their parish’s teams making clear through regular communications that they valued parishioners, their safety, and adapting their regular activities with creativity to approximate normal as much as possible. 

Another key was livestreaming Mass. Instead of finding that Catholics would “get used to going to Mass in their pajamas, sipping their coffee,” as some feared, the parish found Catholics’ hunger for the Eucharist and in-person Mass increased. 

Kasun said livestreaming has proved a “lifeline” for the person who could not attend Mass in person — not a replacement for in-person worship — and is now a permanent feature that serves “quite a few” parishioners who cannot attend Mass due to autoimmune conditions or who have to care for at-risk loved ones. 

“We want them to have a heart for worship and a heart for God,” she said. “That’s really what we're trying to cultivate here.”