Small Is Beautiful: How Catholic Faith Comes Alive in Small Parishes
The Catholic Church in the U.S. is ‘super-sizing’ its parishes, but small parishes have some critical advantages in passing on the Catholic faith.
LINCOLN, Ark. — Like the ancient Christian basilicas of Rome, Sts. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church in Lincoln. Arkansas, started in the house of a Christian woman. Deeply pained watching Catholics in her small town start to leave the faith for nearby Protestant churches, Maria Elena Ortiz began hosting a charismatic prayer group in a friend’s home on Wednesdays in 2010 that quickly became well attended.
The group outgrew the house and moved into a barn. Little by little, Ortiz and her fellow Catholics were building the foundations of a Catholic church in their little town of Lincoln, right in the heart of the Bible Belt.
“God likes small things,” Ortiz told the Register. “It’s exciting to see a community that’s growing spiritually.”
The next step was to ask for a Mass. Ortiz’s house was 35 minutes away from the nearest Catholic parish, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Fayetteville. With the support of St. Joseph’s pastor, they rented a building for $250 a month, made an altar and an ambo, and got a tabernacle for the Eucharist.
“In the evening, we just started going over and celebrating Mass for them on that side of town,” said Father Jason Tyler, who is now also Sts. Peter and Paul’s pastor in addition to St. Joseph’s.
The small congregation kept growing and eventually switched to Sunday morning worship in August 2016. The number of worshippers that year went from 60 to 100 with the weekly Mass.
In 2017, the parish purchased a former pharmacy “right in the town square,” Father Tyler explained, and dedicated it as their new church the next year. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, Sunday attendance had grown to approximately 130 people, and Ortiz had 40 people gathering weekly for her Wednesday prayer group. Father Tyler said approximately a third have returned as of the initial church reopening in mid-May, which is consistent with the numbers the Catholic Church is seeing in Arkansas, as people are cautious over the virus.
“Sts. Peter and Paul has weathered the storm of COVID-19 pretty well, all things considered,” he said. Parishioners trained to do sacramental preparation, he already performed one baptism, and they have first Communions scheduled for July. They also added Eucharistic adoration on Thursday and Sunday.
“Everyone is willing to jump in, get involved and volunteer to make things happen,” he said.
“It’s exciting, really. There’s no staff. It’s all volunteers there.”
St. Peter and Paul’s, he said, has grown through its witness and dedication of its members. And the community is eager to evangelize.
“One of our goals for the future is to add a Mass in English,” he said, explaining that the community is Spanish-speaking but wants to invite their English-speaking friends and neighbors to know Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church and make sure the next generation, which is bilingual, also feels at home.
Ortiz said it is beautiful to see people’s faith awakening because St. Peter and Paul’s is in their town.
“They’re falling in love with Jesus, knowing that he is right there in the Eucharist, and they’re bringing their children,” she said.
Small Parishes, Big Impact
As the United States grapples with a reduced number of priests to serve its Catholic population, dioceses in some regions have sought to “consolidate” parishes, and small parishes have built bigger buildings to accommodate more people in a single church space.
According to a 2011 report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, smaller parishes, particularly those with 200 or fewer households, are declining: They dropped from 24% of Catholic parishes in 2000 to 15% in 2010. CARA stated the average number of parishioners per church has increased as dioceses have closed small parishes to consolidate them into larger parish entities.
But the supersizing of churches and Church life may actually be harmful to handing on the Gospel in the long run, whereas churches with congregations that are either small or have large congregations built on small groups have distinct advantages in creating disciples of Jesus Christ who feel they are truly part of a community living out the Catholic faith.
Ortiz noted that people in Lincoln were drifting away from the Catholic faith because St. Joseph’s in Fayetteville was too far away. Because they thought the only model of Catholic church was the large parish, and Lincoln was a small town, people did not believe (at first) a small Catholic parish was possible. But thanks to Sts. Peter and Paul, people are now “spiritually growing,” and the Catholic faith is spreading, surrounded by Protestant churches.
CARA noted that the average number of households in a parish was 1,168 in 2010. And, overall, “Mass attendance lags significantly behind registered parishioners, with parishes seeing on average 38% of their registered parishioners every Sunday.”
However, attendance numbers rise significantly for smaller parishes. CARA found parishes with less than 200 households saw 79% of registered parishioners attending Mass. While in the next cohort, 201-549 registered households, that number declined to 50% attending. The worst attendance ratio was in parishes with more than 1,200 registered households (one out of three U.S. parishes are this size), where just 38% of parishioners attended Mass regularly.
While CARA research did not indicate any causal connection between parish size and Mass attendance, the authors offered a hypothesis that “smaller parish communities may better inspire or promote more parish activity — including Mass attendance.”
CARA added that the absence of parishioners at Mass is also more noted at a small parish rather than a large one. Sacramental participation rates were also highest in small parishes.
Bishop Steven Lopes leads the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a Catholic diocese with Anglican traditions for North America that was founded by Benedict XVI. Bishop Lopes told the Register that the experience of having real fellowship with one’s parishioners helps keep them rooted in the Church and “practicing their faith regularly.”
“The biggest driver of [people leaving the Church] is the feeling of anonymity,” he said, “the feeling of ‘that if it doesn’t matter if I’m there, then it doesn’t matter if I’m not there.’”
He said that “the largest challenge in Catholic life across the board, outside of the ordinariate, is simply the size of parishes.”
The ordinariate’s parish culture, he explained, intentionally favors smaller communities (or forming new communities when parishes start to grow large) as a way to manage that size and keep people regularly engaged and growing in their Catholic faith, whereas “larger parishes have to be a lot more creative on how they form that sense of intentional community and intentional discipleship around the Mass.”
New Church, New Growth
Planting a new church has many positive benefits for its members, according to the evangelical Christian research firm Barna Group. Barna found that many pastors and church leaders believe a new and local church draws fresh interest from the unchurched, and Barna saw positive spiritual growth in existing members, saying it fostered growth in discipleship.
“Their energy and vision create opportunities for leadership development, which in turn create more opportunities for discipleship and evangelism — a multiplying effect that is foundational to the spread of the gospel,” the researchers stated in a 2017 report.
Incarnation Catholic Church, an ordinariate parish in Orlando, Florida, formed St. John Fisher Catholic Church, 20 miles away in Southeast Orange County, at the request of a small number of parishioners who said there was no Catholic church in the area. Incarnation proposed starting with a Sunday evening Mass.
Teens spend small-group time at St. John Fisher.
“After securing a place for worship in the local hospital chapel, we started celebrating Mass for them on that side of town,” Father Jason McCrimmon, St. John Fisher’s pastoral administrator, told the Register. They began with a core of 10 families consistently attending the Mass. As they grew, Father McCrimmon and his flock had a serious conversation about whether they wanted to start the adventure of forming a new parish. They agreed and moved to a 9am Sunday Mass and eventually outgrew the hospital chapel. Just before the COVID-19 shutdown, they had a congregation of 65 people worshipping in Andover Elementary School, with Masses scheduled for 8am and 10:15am. The congregation is presently worshipping at Incarnation, having been impacted by the temporary closure of the school, which Father McCrimmon expected to reopen to renters shortly. In the meantime, the parish is also planning the next steps for a building.
“They’re just a real loving group, and they have a desire to be a family united as a Church,” Father McCrimmon said. “Almost every person that attends was invited or welcomed by one of our parishioners.”
The priest said reverence in the Mass is key, as well as providing preaching on the Catholic faith “where the word of God and teachings of the Church are not compromised.”
“For me, I find it immensely comforting that I know every single person and every single name. They are not a distant face in the pew, but instead family,” he said.
“St. John Fisher is a direct result of God’s blessing working through like-minded individuals wanting to fulfill the Gospel mandate,” he said, adding he felt “extremely blessed that God has allowed me to serve them.”
St. John Fisher parishioner Michael Shea told the Register that he discovered the parish a year ago. He enjoyed the reverence of the Mass and the intimacy of the community.
“You know everybody by name,” Shea said. And a “primary driver” in joining the parish was the ability to have a personal relationship with his parish priest, which he couldn’t have in his former parish of 1,100 families.
“The priests just couldn’t keep up with that many people,” he said. But a small parish also means people have to step up to the plate to make things happen, whereas in a large parish, many burdens fall on a small number of volunteers.
“It’s much more all hands on deck,” he said.
‘Missiondom’ Is Interpersonal
Katherine Coolidge, director for parish and diocesan services at the Siena Institute in Colorado Springs, Colorado, told the Register small congregations can prove nimble in responding to the crisis of today, which is that Christendom — the world where Christianity and Sunday observance is taken for granted — is dead and the Church is now in “missiondom.”
“What distinguishes missiondom for the Christian is interpersonal relationship,” she said.
Studies have shown that casual conversations, individually and in groups, are important for those receiving evangelization. Small Christian communities excel at creating opportunities for such evangelization, while larger communities need to have “strategy and structures” to get that big-parish experience down to a small-group level.
The experience of being a disciple of Jesus Christ lived in fellowship with other disciples is easier to recognize in the small-church setting.
“Small churches have that inborn intimacy,” she said, adding that members of small churches are “already connected with the person next to them.”
However, smaller churches also have challenges and temptations that could inhibit their mission. Coolidge said small churches can also turn inward on themselves. At a certain point, in order to keep growing, as living things do, a small church either needs to get a bigger building, add more Mass times (which in theory means having multiple congregations under the same roof as people tend to attend the same weekly Mass), or it needs to split, “planting” a church mission.
However once a church gets bigger, either with a greater capacity or adding more congregations with each new Mass time, then the challenges of creating a close-knit community in a large parish set in.
In the case of St. John Fisher, Father McCrimmon explained that when their parish in the future reaches 200 families, they will begin a conversation about planting a new Catholic church.
But Coolidge explained the Catholic Church cannot operate churches, whatever their size, on that small, interpersonal scale without a financial commitment that matches what keeps Protestant churches operating. But on average, Catholics have not shown that level of sacrificial giving per household.
A 2015 National Congregations Study from Duke University showed Catholics gave less than half what evangelicals gave at churches of equivalent size. On average, an evangelical in a congregation of 100 adults gave $1,750 to his or her church, while a Catholic in a congregation of the same size gave $850. An evangelical in a congregation of 1,000 adults gave $1,140, while a Catholic in the same size congregation gave $550.
CARA noted that smaller Catholic parishes generally collect more per registered household in their offertory than larger parishes — possibly because people are more conscious of their church’s operating needs. However, parishes with 200 households or less may struggle with slight deficits, while large parishes tend to exceed revenues over expenses the larger they get.
Even so, in parishes large or small, CARA found (before the 2018 renewed abuse scandal revelations) the average rate of Catholic household giving to the offertory collection was low: $12 weekly per household in parishes with 200 households or less and $7.81 weekly per household in parishes with more than 1,200 households.
Coolidge said Catholics need a “huge paradigm shift” in the magnitude of volunteerism and tithing in order to match how evangelicals make small churches thrive or how they create intimacy in larger churches through small groups.
“The commitment is not to brick and mortar; the commitment is to God and his people,” she said. “That’s their culture.”
Small Pastoring Is Beautiful
St. George’s Melkite Catholic Church in Birmingham, Alabama, reopened on Pentecost Sunday and resumed its regular schedule with social-distancing protocols to keep parishioners safe. The church, which had grown to 200 worshippers on a Sunday, has had to balance its congregants between the Saturday vigil and Sunday Divine Liturgies. But Father Justin Rose, the pastor, told the Register that the size of his parish is ideal for staying close to one’s flock.
“Because we’re a small church, the priest is able to be involved in people’s lives,” he said.
St. George Melkite Church fosters a close-knit community for faith and fellowship.
Lebanese and Palestinian immigrants to Birmingham who built the growing city’s restaurants and groceries in the 19th and early 20th century also built St. George’s Melkite Catholic Church, which played a supporting role in the civil-rights movement.
And today with the new influx of people to Birmingham, the parish has continued to grow and diversify, including among its families those from Western Christian backgrounds who have been drawn to Melkite forms of worship, prayer and community.
“I’ve enjoyed seeing more come in,” Sharon Baroody told the Register, adding that the parish uses its annual festival to share their faith with Southern hospitality. They have tour guides who not only show people the church, but also act as evangelists. They are also active in showing Catholic witness through outreach, like their homeless ministry.
“We’re also serious about the Bible,” Father Rose said, adding they’ve seen Protestants join their Catholic church because they see the connections between the Bible, the icons and the liturgy.
“When people come in, we reach out to them,” Father Rose said, saying that nobody is left a stranger.
And the parish makes an intentional effort to welcome families with kids and make sure they feel at home. Baroody said they support the parents and explain that kids are not supposed to be quiet in church, but should be learning the singing, the bowing and the Signing of the Cross throughout the Divine Liturgy.
And it seems to be working: The parish is growing, has about 70 youth in religious education now, is looking to add a new building for classroom space, and will continue to work through pandemic-related challenges.
But Father Rose said it’s the faith and witness of the laypeople who make those new relationships and bring people into the church to know, love and follow Jesus Christ.
“They’re evangelists and apostles for the faith,” he said, “and it pays off one family at a time.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.