CathBlog - Increasing Mass attendance


“Now is the time for each local Church to assess its fervour and find fresh enthusiasm for its spiritual and pastoral responsibilities.” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, n.3)

In 2011 I was invited to join the Australian Catholic Council for Pastoral Research, which is a committee established by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to oversee the work of its Pastoral Research Office.  The latter is based at the Melbourne campus of Australian Catholic University (ACU) and I became familiar with the work of the Office during my years as ACU’s senior officer on campus.  

The Pastoral Research Office has the significant role of exploring the pastoral, cultural, social and personal dimensions of the Catholic Church in Australia.  It undertakes major research projects and reports on these studies – for example: Research Project on Catholics Who Have Ceased Attending Mass (2009), See, I am Doing a New Thing! (2010), which reported on the 2009 survey of Catholic religious institutes in Australia, and What Makes People Feel They Belong? (2011) on Mass attenders’ sense of belonging to their parish.

One of the Pastoral Research Office’s current projects, entitled Building Stronger Parishes, is investigating a cross-section of Catholic parishes, recognised for their vibrancy, to identify their strengths and pastoral resources as a basis for assisting other parishes to enhance their parish life.

This is a timely and important project – let me put that in the context of findings of the National Church Life Survey (NCLS), which is another involvement of the Pastoral Research Office.  

In 2006, when I was ACU’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic Affairs), I submitted some questions, on behalf of the University, to the then Bishops Pastoral Projects Office (now Pastoral Research Office) for inclusion in the 2006 NCLS.  The questions related to Mass attendance by age group, and theological education and other faith formation activities, respectively. 

Given the enormous amount of data collected in the NCLS, the survey responses to these questions only became available in February 2011.  In a blog last year I analysed findings in relation to theological and faith education needs of respondents.

On this occasion I want to consider the findings on Mass attendance.  The targeted questions were included in NCLS Questionnaire W, which was completed by 6850 Mass attenders.  The questions sought input on:

reasons that had caused a respondent to stop going to Mass, or to go less often, even if only for a short time (Question 50);  frequency of church attendance at each of the ages of 16, 20, 30 and 40 years (Question 54).

The majority of respondents (56%) indicated that they had never stopped going to Mass.   For the remainder the two most frequent reasons for not attending Mass were:

“I did not think it was necessary to go to Mass every week to be a good Catholic”, and “I was too busy on weekends”.  

Other significant responses, given at about half the frequency of the first two reasons, included:

“I wanted to spend weekends with my family or friends”; “I moved to a new parish”;  “I was not getting anything out of going to Mass”; “I just lost interest; Mass wasn’t that important for me anymore”, and “I found the sermons/homilies boring or irrelevant”.  

Younger attendees were significantly more likely to indicate their non-attendance related to being too busy on weekends and/or wanting to spend the time with family or friends.

In response to the age-related Question 54, the Mass attenders surveyed indicated at least weekly Mass attendance as follows:

84 per cent at age 16 years; 74 per cent at age 20 years; 78 per cent at age 30 years; and 87 per cent at age 40 years.

The NCLS covers a wide range of demographic characteristics, levels of parish involvement and matters of personal faith, and extensive “mining” and analysis of the data are possible.  Let me highlight just two observations from these 2006 survey questions commissioned by ACU:

Significantly, by age 40 some Catholics who had been less than weekly Mass attenders at 20 and 30 years of age had returned to at least weekly participation – presumably this increased involvement related, at least in part, to the desire of parents to involve their children in parish life.  A concern of those who had reduced their Mass attendance at some stage was that they had not felt spiritually supported by their parish at that time. 

These illustrative findings of the 2006 NCLS indicate the importance of initiatives like the Pastoral Research Office’s Building Stronger Parishes project.  At this time it is critical for the Church to look at models of parish that are meeting the spiritual and pastoral needs of their communities, and to adapt effective approaches, as appropriate, to other situations.  

The coming months will be particularly busy for the Pastoral Research Office as the results of the 2011 NCLS become available and new analyses emerge.  As a service of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the Pastoral Research Office has a unique and vital mission for the Catholic Church in Australia.

Gabrielle McMullenProfessor Gabrielle McMullen AM is Emeritus Professor, Australian Catholic University.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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