Book captures the transformation of the American Catholic parish

Book captures the transformation of the American Catholic parish

Book captures the transformation of the American Catholic parish

Church parishioners participate in Mass at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Maryland on Sept. 20, 2015. (Credit: Andre Chung / for NBC News.)

A new book called "Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century" presents a treasure trove of research and data on parish life in America, among other things capturing the ethnic transformation of American Catholicism and also the impact of growing mobility.

The lead author of a new book called Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century says the wide range of research it presents is based on “a 360-degree view of parish life” today, as the Catholic Church in the United States adapts to an increasingly diverse and mobile population.

“Each chapter is its own story and tells something Catholics need to know – priests, bishops and people in the pews,” said Charles Zech, a professor of economics in the Villanova University School of Business and the director of Villanova’s Center for Church Management.

Zech wrote the book along with four researchers from CARA – the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a national research center affiliated with Georgetown University that conducts studies about the Catholic Church.

The book, published by Oxford University Press, updates the groundbreaking research in the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life done in the 1980s that examined issues such as declining Mass attendance, but it offers an expansive look at the increasingly multicultural reality of today’s Catholic parishes and the important role that lay people are playing in parish ministry.

A springboard for the new research came in 2009 with the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, in which five national Catholic ministerial organizations with funding from the Lily Endowment commissioned CARA to conduct nationwide parish surveys.

In successive studies, CARA compiled responses from parishes and surveyed parish leaders and parishioners in the pews, and also conducted interviews and focus groups, including of bishops.

To put together its portrait of Catholic parish life today, CARA also drew on more than 25 national surveys of adult Catholics it has conducted since 2000 and gathered data from other sources including The Official Catholic Directory published annually by P.J. Kenedy & Sons.

“There’s all kinds of different snapshots here,” said Mark Gray, the director of CARA Catholic polls, who was interviewed by Crux at that research group’s Washington headquarters, along with three other colleagues who are co-authors of the book. He estimated that “north of 100,000” U.S. Catholics were surveyed for the research that they compiled.

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century offers chapters examining changing demographics of U.S. Catholics, parishes and parish leaders, examines Catholic parish finances, who’s attending Mass and how they feel about their parishes, and the cultural diversity of U.S. parishes. The book concludes by summarizing key trends in U.S. Catholic parishes and their implications for the future.

“There’s nothing to compare it with,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Gaunt, the executive director of CARA.

Mary Gautier, a sociologist and senior research associate at CARA who specializes in Catholic demographic trends in the United States, said that perhaps the most striking difference between the new study compared to the Notre Dame research was that the work from three decades earlier didn’t survey Hispanic Catholics or the parishes serving them or provide an in-depth look at multicultural parishes.

“They did not quite see what was coming,” she said.

The new book notes that now more than one-quarter of U.S. Catholics are foreign born, and 6,332 parishes “are known to serve a particular racial, ethnic, cultural, and or/linguistic community,” which amounts to about 36 percent of U.S. parishes. Those communities include growing numbers of Catholics from Latin American, Asian and African countries.

The book notes that one in four parishes offers weekend liturgies in more than one language.

Gautier said the United States is estimated to have almost 30 million Hispanic/Latino Catholics, who constitute about 33 percent of all U.S. Catholics, and more than 4,000 parishes celebrate a Spanish-language Mass at least once a month. The researchers also found that now about one-half of U.S. Catholics under 50 are Hispanic.

“This increasing diversity is the future of Catholic parish life” in the United States, the book notes.

Another striking thing the surveys revealed, Gautier said, is “just how far the Church has come from the Notre Dame study, when lay ministry was just emerging on the horizon, to now where there are more lay ministers than priests.”

The book’s chapter on changing clergy demographics notes that while about 500 new priests are being ordained in the United States each year and this country has a more favorable ratio of clergy to priests than many other parts of the world, that does not replace the number of priests who die or who are inactive due to illness or retirement.

Now the Catholic Church in the United States has about 16,500 active diocesan priests, and the average age of U.S. priests is in the mid-60s. In 2014, the U.S. had 26,000 priests, including retired clergy, compared to 34,000 in 1990. About one-fourth of U.S. diocesan priests come from foreign countries.

There are an estimated 40,000 lay ecclesial ministers on parish ministry staffs, and the United States has about 18,000 permanent deacons serving in a variety of roles. The book highlights the need for adequate training for lay parish workers and volunteers, especially in financial and operational matters, to assist the declining number of priests.

“The whole face of parish pastoral leadership has changed,” Gautier said.

Another dramatic development in the U.S. Catholic Church in recent decades has been the shift in Catholic population and how Catholics are now distributed across the country.

While the Notre Dame study found that almost two-thirds of the nation’s Catholics lived in the Northeast or Midwest, now Catholics are almost evenly distributed across the four major regions of the country, with 28 percent in the Northeast, 23 percent in the Midwest, 25 percent in the West and 24 percent in the South.

The book notes how significant numbers of Catholics have moved from cities and farms to suburban areas and to parts of the country where there are more jobs. Some dioceses in the Northeast and Rust Belt have lost tens of thousands of Catholics in recent decades and had to close or merge parishes, while dioceses in the Sun Belt are rapidly growing and have to build expansive churches.

“People move, infrastructure doesn’t,” said Gaunt, noting the change is also fueled by the mobility of younger generations and the nation’s growing immigrant population. An added challenge is maintaining older churches that are expensive to maintain and have small numbers of parishioners.

The declining number of priests and the shifting Catholic population has also led to new models of parish leadership, the book notes, pointing out how some priests now lead more than one parish, or clusters of parishes are led by a team of priests, and some parishes are now administered by permanent deacons, women religious or lay people who serve as parish life coordinators.

The book characterizes the contrast between parts of the country where the Catholic population is declining and churches are closing, to other regions where there’s rapid growth, as a “tale of two Churches,” and notes how the neighborhood parishes of the past are being transformed into larger regional communities, with churches that now seat more than 1,000 parishioners.

Gaunt says the book highlights “the ever-changing mode of parish life in the United States, and highlights a lot of creativity of pastors and parish ministers in addressing this very mobile and diverse population.”

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century also notes another kind of mobility, a phenomenon that some call “parish shopping.” The book points out that “at the time of the Notre Dame study, about 85 percent of Catholics attended the parish where they lived; the other 15 percent crossed boundaries to attend a parish they preferred.”

Thirty years later, CARA researchers found that more than 30 percent of parishioners and about two-fifths of millennials “drive past a parish closer to home to attend Mass at a parish of their choice.”

Another key aspect of the Notre Dame study also shows a profound shift, as a 1985 survey found 41 percent of U.S. Catholics attended weekly Mass. CARA researchers found that in 2010, 24 percent of U.S. Catholics were weekly Massgoers.

The new book is filled with interesting statistical nuggets, like “while the male-to-female ratio is currently about even for Catholics nationally (51 percent female), women make up 64 percent of those in the pews.”

The pastoral implications of the parish research findings will be examined in a follow-up Crux article, but the CARA researchers said that their extensive studies ultimately offer an optimistic view of today’s Catholic parish life in the United States.

Gray noted, “There are so many different ways people are being Catholic, in different environments, different settings.” That could include a suburban mega-parish led by a priest, or a small rural parish administered by a parish life coordinator, he said.

“They’re there regularly celebrating the same faith. So many environments have emerged under the Catholic umbrella,” Gray said. “The Church is making it work for the people in the country.”

Gautier pointed out that it’s ironic that the Notre Dame study was done at a time perceived as a period of  “great change and flux in the Catholic Church.”

Thirty years later, she said, “that period of time seems calm and stable. Yet the Church remains vibrant and dynamic and growing, and an exciting place to be, and full of potential for even more change.”

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