The Catholic Church Battles to Fill the Pews

After the pandemic lockdown ‘broke the habit’ of Mass attendance for millions of U.S. Catholics, dioceses across the country have waged a battle to bring them back ‘one by one.’

Many dioceses have rolled out a variety of initiatives designed to bring Catholics back to Mass.
Many dioceses have rolled out a variety of initiatives designed to bring Catholics back to Mass. (photo: Dziurek / Shutterstock)

FIDELITY, Kan. — Father Jaime Zarse, a priest for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, has left nothing to chance since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered parishes back in March 2020, suspending the Sunday Mass obligation. 

The pastor of three small rural church communities, Sacred Heart parish in Sabetha, St. Augustine parish in Fidelity and St. James parish in Wetmore, Father Zarse rebounded from the lockdown as quickly as possible, celebrating Mass in cornfields and church parking lots, before he was permitted to hold indoor services. The young pastor also helped coordinate outreach to shut-ins and others in need, while keeping congregants abreast of shifting Mass schedules and worship protocols via social media.

“We opened up quickly, as there was a lot of hunger for getting back to church,” Father Zarse told the Register.

“We worked hard to write letters and make phone calls. We marketed our return to services on social media so everyone knew we were back and that we wanted to invite them back to Mass.”

The proactive, nimble response paid off: Most parishioners in this conservative farming region are filling the pews. But the pastor hasn’t let up and is now deeply involved in the Kansas City Archdiocese’s ambitious campaign to train and deputize local parishioners to help restore battered communities, strengthen faith formation and accompany lapsed Catholics looking for guidance. 

Almost three years after the pandemic lockdown upended parish life across the nation, Church leaders remain deeply concerned about low Mass attendance, though the scope of the problem varies. 

“We are seeing an 18%-30% drop in Mass attendance since 2019, with the average closer to 30%, among dioceses we are working with,” Dan Celluci told the Register. As CEO of the Catholic Leadership Institute, he works to provide leadership formation and resources to parishes and dioceses across the country.

Rural parishes, like those shepherded by Father Zarse, are more likely to see a return to pre-pandemic attendance numbers than urban churches, Celluci noted. 

“My hypothesis is that the rural communities are more tight-knit, if not smaller,” he suggested, “and they are used to taking more communal responsibility for their parish.”


Urgent Need for Outreach

But wherever a parish is located, the dire need for stepped-up outreach is clear, he said, and people in the pews need training and support to do this vital work.

“For many years, we were formed in the obligation to come to church, and that is important,” said Celluci. "But we were not formed in the obligation to go out.”

Many dioceses have rolled out a variety of initiatives designed to bring Catholics back to Mass, while some tackle more entrenched problems, like weak formation and bad preaching. 

In the Archdiocese of Denver, where local efforts related to the national multiyear Eucharistic Revival are underway, active churchgoers will receive additional formation, even as they are prepped to share the faith with those who have fallen away. 

“The important thing for making that invitation effective is that our parishioners feel compelled to invite others,” Andrew McGown, Denver’s executive director of evangelization and family life ministries, told the Register. “Their testimony is more effective than any doctrinal apologetics. “

And outreach initiatives “must be part of a larger effort to transform our parishes,” McGown emphasized. 

Former parishioners “left for a reason. If they come back and find the parish is just the same as it was before, they will be confirmed in their view that this is not where they need to be.”


Detroit’s Efforts

In the Archdiocese of Detroit, Vickie Figueroa, associate director for cultural ministries for the archdiocese, helps the predominantly urban parishes that serve the city’s 70,000 Black Catholics regain their footing after COVID spread death and fear. She noted that a relatively high proportion of congregants resided in multigenerational households, where young adults were more likely to be in service jobs, and thus older people were forced to self-isolate to avoid infection. 

Once the churches reopened, these parishes shifted their focus from online Mass and writing letters that offered prayers and support to “deputizing people to go out and visit people, send emails and make calls.” 

The one-on-one conversations include invitations to parish events, a chance to share the Scripture passages of the day, and a reminder that more information on activities and resources for local Black Catholics was available on Facebook.

Figueroa now believes this battered community has “turned a corner.” 

“I am seeing more African Americans back and younger Catholics bringing their kids,” she said. “Not only do they feel safe coming to the church, they also see hope in the Catholic faith. The word is starting to spread.”

However, while specific parish communities have faced especially daunting challenges during this unprecedented time, those who have studied the decline in Mass attendance say the underlying problems date back half a century. 


‘Culturally Engaged’

In 2019, one year before the pandemic hit the U.S., less than a quarter of self-identified Catholics attended weekly Mass, while a significant cohort of those who did show up “were practicing a faith of habit,” said Celluci.

“They were culturally engaged, and weekly Mass was a part of their routine, but it was not an overly conscious decision.”

The “General Social Survey,” administered by the U.S. government-funded National Opinion Research Center, provides further context.

The biennial survey tracked Catholics’ weekly Mass attendance between the 1970s and 2010s and found that the numbers “dropped roughly by half, from 45% to 24%,” while respondents who said they never attended Mass roughly doubled, from 13% to 22%.” At the same time, “weekly church attendance among Protestants rose from 28% to 35%.”

That history helps explain why the lockdown led more Catholics to drop Sunday Mass, especially if they did not believe in the Real Presence, said Timothy O’Malley, director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. O’Malley is an associate professor of theology who also serves on the executive committee of the Eucharistic Revival, the U.S. bishops’ nationwide effort to evangelize Catholics about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. 

O’Malley suggested that in more secularized parts of the nation, pandemic worship restrictions accelerated an already well-established trend toward religious disaffiliation, particularly among younger Catholics. 

Their departure marks the generational fallout from poor formation, as well as the seismic shifts in the broader culture — two issues that complicate the present campaign to reinvigorate parishes. 


‘Back in the Patristic Era’

“The Church has lost authority, and all you have left is persuasion,” O’Malley bluntly noted. 

“We are back in the Patristic era: You don’t have the structure of power to get you to do this — or else.” And that reality alters “the whole dynamic of working with young people, and that is my experience working with undergraduates at Notre Dame.”

At the same time, these experts highlight practical steps parish teams can take to boost the success of their outreach.

First, pastors must take a hard look at the “quality of the liturgies celebrated in the parish” and the religious formation on offer. Strengthening both, said O’Malley, will increase the likelihood that “worship is not going to be a passive experience.” 

And when parishioners make calls to those who have failed to return, they should avoid a “hard sell” and start by offering prayers and spiritual or practical support. 

People are hungry for “an authentic invitation, not a mass-produced video that says, ‘Come back!’” said Celluci. 

A group of parishioners can begin by reaching out to people they know but haven’t seen for a while, Celluci advised.

“Divvy up the names, and call them. It’s the holidays, and you want to check in with them, see how they are doing, and pray together.”

Parish teams should also become familiar with the U.S. bishops’ Eucharistic Revival, he said, as it provides an essential framework for driving and supporting parish outreach.

“Our people need to remember what a gift we have in the Eucharist,” he said. “It will sustain us through the challenges we face.”


Eucharistic Revival

Indeed, the stated goal of the Eucharistic Revival is that the entire Church will be “healed, formed, converted and unified … through an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist” and then “sent out in mission for the life of the world.” 

And some bishops have been inspired by this vision to launch sweeping plans for evangelization that could transform local parishes and make them a spiritual destination for disaffected Catholics.

In Kansas City, Archbishop Joseph Naumann has endorsed the “Human Dignity Curriculum”  for public and private schools, while providing a strong initiative for families in need.

The K-12 Human Dignity Curriculum, developed by World Youth Alliance, an organization dedicated to education and advocacy in defense of human dignity, targets at-risk youth who have struggled to recover from the damage inflicted by the pandemic lockdowns. The program is designed to inculcate a commitment to human freedom, the inalienable dignity and rights of every person, solidarity for the poor, and personal excellence.

The archdiocese has also rolled out a program of pastoral formation and accompaniment for couples seeking to improve their marriage and family life.

Nearby in Atchison, Kansas, Tory Baucum, director of Benedictine College’s Center for Family Life,  which serves the archdiocese, told the Register that the local Church had partnered with Communio to identify urgent concerns in the community and then build outreach to families looking for help.

The 10 participating parishes are training congregants to accompany these suffering families, who will be invited to a series of engaging events that provide a strong practical and spiritual foundation. 

“There is a way to love in truth, so couples actually grow closer together,” said Baucum. “We want to reach people on the periphery of the Church. They may be cohabitating and attending Mass infrequently, and they have never entered into the full power of the sacraments.”

The long-term plan, he said, is to get them into “some kind of formation that helps them experience the sacrament of marriage” and puts them on the path to weekly Mass. 

Thus far, he is heartened by the initial impact of this multiyear campaign.

“We did a family fall festival in one parish: 1,800 came,” he reported. “About a third were not part of the parish at all.”

“Each time we help them take a little step closer to the Church,” said Baucum. “This is the pathway to a New Evangelization.”