Not to brag, but when people in our area shop for a parish, my parish is the one that wins. At least, that’s what former parish shoppers tell me. Maybe over at our competitors, they hear the same thing from those who fled our parish, but I choose to believe otherwise.
We have four well-attended weekend Masses in a modern, sunlit, semi-circular church that holds about six hundred people. Collections are the envy of parishes several times our size. Baptisms outnumber funerals by a wide margin. Outreach programs attract plenty of volunteers. In recent years, as central New Jersey has changed, so has our parish: Asian and Filipino families mix with the long-established Italian and Irish émigrés from Brooklyn and Jersey City. Every week, seeing these friends and strangers coming forward for the Eucharist, the bond uniting us seems something of a miracle, and I am grateful for the place.
So, on most weekends, it seems to me like the state of Sunday Mass is not so bad. And yet I realize my parish is an unusual and healthy one, and that the more than seventeen thousand other parishes out there include many without the resources and talent we have. In the pages that follow, you’ll see reports on a wide variety of Catholic Sunday experiences on two weekends, one in June and one in July. It’s too small a sample, of course, to draw quantitative conclusions—but not, perhaps, to get an impression of how Catholic Sundays are faring.
All of these parishes are making an effort, sometimes valiantly, to do what they can with what they have. True, you will see some off-putting curiosities: Stepfordish altar boys in one place, culture war disguised as prayer in another. Still, none of our intrepid correspondents felt like walking out, or saw any true monstrosities: no harangues from the pulpit, no cappae magnae, not a single clown. There are churches with what sound like decent crowds, and even some tears of joy and engagement, and yet also a great deal of what looks, on the surface at least, like routine and indifference. There are multiple reports of many Catholics sitting way in the back, literally and perhaps spiritually near the exit.
Is the current state of things one of “well-intentioned mediocrity,” as J. Peter Nixon writes, or are we somehow muddling through? In a recent authoritative study of parish health, more than 90 percent of Mass-going Catholics said they were satisfied with their parish. But of course, that number is deceptive. My mentor in marketing research taught me that dying products often show high customer satisfaction, since the dissatisfied are long gone. Only 24 percent of Catholics say they went to Mass last week, less than half the rate of fifty years ago. Young adults largely don’t ever go, and haven’t for years. Latino Catholics show losses of Catholic affiliation that rival their Anglo counterparts. The sexual-abuse crisis has, by many reports, weakened attendance still further. A third of all baptized Catholics have left the church.