As parishes close, mass attendance in Camden plunges

While church attendance in beleaguered Boston appears to be improving, the story further south is less encouraging.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Kim Simmons-Dimpter was the sort of lifelong Catholic who attended Mass every Sunday, volunteered at religious classes, and even tried to persuade her teenage son to get out of bed and go to church.

But when Holy Rosary Church in Cherry Hill closed in 2009, and Simmons-Dimpter and her fellow parishioners were directed to another church three miles across town, she drifted away.

“I can’t even tell you the last time I went” to Mass, she said recently. “The fact it was across the street was really convenient. Plus my kids have a lot of extracurriculars. It’s not any one reason.”

Since Camden Bishop Joseph Galante began merging South Jersey parishes three years ago in what has become a model for dioceses nationwide, Mass attendance has fallen substantially, according to data provided by the diocese.

In the fall of 2006, a year and a half before Galante announced that he planned to reduce the number of parishes by more than a third, the annual fall Mass count was 114,000 parishioners. Last fall, the count dropped below 100,000 in the diocese, which stretches across southern New Jersey.

“Yes, it’s disappointing,” Galante said Tuesday. “But the diminution in Mass attendance didn’t happen overnight, and I don’t expect that overnight it will suddenly recover.”

A former undersecretary at the Vatican, Galante has made the issue of helping parishes overcome a priest shortage and falling attendance his signature mission since taking over the Camden Diocese in late 2004. In his first year, he went out to the churches, sometimes visiting four in a week, and concluded that downsizing was the only option.

With fewer parishes, fewer priests are needed and money is freed for professional ministers to provide services such as marriage counseling and youth ministry.

Also, having fewer empty pews could liven up Mass, drawing the younger demographic the church has been struggling to retain.

The problem Galante was trying to solve was one that church leaders across the United States are struggling with: how to get Catholics to church in a culture that is increasingly secular.

And the Catholic Church’s ongoing sexual-abuse scandal has pushed many Catholics away, the bishop said.

“It provided a justification for people who were already shaky in their faith,” he said. “We haven’t done a good job giving people a grounding in the faith.”

The percentage of Catholics who attend Mass weekly has fallen to 31 percent, from 62 percent in the 1950s, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

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17 responses to “As parishes close, mass attendance in Camden plunges”

  1. Some years ago, the educational establishment supported a nationwide push to close small elementary schools. At the middle-grade level, we were told, it was imperative that children have access to the myriad resources (and highly-paid resource teachers) that only a mega-school could provide. The results were predictably awful. Some of the worst-performing schools (with the worst-behaved students) in America are those huge, modernistic and well-stocked institutions where individuals and their needs are simply lost in the crowd. I suspect we’ll see similar results from the parish mergers, and it would be more honest to admit that the only possible justification for them is the shortage of priests.

  2. If 3 miles distance is enough to bring Mass attendance to a halt…one has to wonder if the person truly knows what the Mass is and what the Catholic Faith is all about…

    I think B16 (perhaps when he was simply Cardinal Ratzinger) once said that he thought the Church of the 21st century would be a smaller community but composed of those who lived the Gospel in an authentic manner. More recently, he spoke out that the Sacrament of Matrimony is not a “right” but must be approached with a proper disposition and understanding…

    All this makes me wonder, too, if we (i.e., status quo typical American Catholic parish) are really helping people spiritually when we administer Baptism to those who never before or likely afterwards think Church important in their lifes. Or if we keep admitting to Confirmation umpteen kids from nominally Catholic families who not only do not attend Mass but have no intention of doing so yet want their kids “confirmed”.

    Our we, perhaps, fooled and dazzled by “numbers”? Do we equate success with quantity instead of quality? Less CAN be more.

  3. Four points about closing large numbers of churches. First, I don’t think some priests and bishops, who frequently are transferred, ever understand the attachment many lay people have to the church where their families have attended Mass, had their children baptized, saw their children receive their first Holy Communions and First Penance and Confirmation, saw their children married there and buried loved ones from it.
    That is why , I believe, some church leaders seem almost baffled that some loyal Catholics are the one’s most against church closings. It is the most loyal who are the most attached to the sacred space they have lived so much of their spiritual, sacramental lives in.
    Second, the Methodist church, which used to have many churches in our area has almost disappeared. They merged, and merged to get bigger parishes where you could do all those wonderful programs and hire all those well-trained professionals, etc. Why did Catholic leaders think wiping out still viable–even if only marginally– parish communities through mergers would work any better for us than for the Methodists?
    Third, we had two churches close in our city before the Big Round of closings. There was no controversy over them because they were not closed until virtually every parishoner in them could clearly see the writing on the wall financially and in disappearing attendance.
    Fourth, my daughter and her family have lived in parts of the South sometimes called in the past “No priestland USA”. The churches are tiny, the priests travel from a central location, etc. And the major goal is to keep parish communities alive no matter how small or how difficult to do so. And in some places in the South, these insignificant little parishes have lately exploded in size. It is almost like the baseball field movie line “Build it and they will come”–only in this case it has been: “Here comes everybody” to the parish. If the Southern dioceses followed the defeatist Northeast attitude there would have been nowhere for those suddenly attracted to or needing (as in the case of so many Catholic immigrants) a Catholic church or parish.
    In short, I think mass closings in some dioceses was short-sighted and not a creative long view solution to Church problems–such as a lack of priests- as many in Church leadership had hoped.
    Wasn’t the Church crumbling when St. Francis of Assisi came along. One of the first things he did was repair a falling down church. He (re)built it and they came. It is a good thing his diocese hadn’t sold the place to the Moonies or for condos.

  4. People are attached not just to their physical church, but to the people that make up their parish, their faith community. It’s their family and it’s where they feel home. So closing a parish is significant.

    And if three miles is too far for someone to travel, how do we get that person to a point where they would rather crawl through three miles of glass than miss Sunday’s mass? Because isn’t that our job? To bring people to The Church?

  5. Ttarp Post #5

    “Because isn’t that our job? To bring people to The Church?”

    Honestly, I thought it was just the opposite: We are to bring the Church to the people.

  6. I think we also need to make sure that the people was called to attend mass by making it the most amazing and powerful place to be. Too often, it seems our clergy assume that since Mass is obligatory, there is no need to make a great effort to make it compelling. Lackluster sermons and banal prayers do not help inspire the laity with the grandeur and beauty of our faith. The Eucharist, when done right, is a transformative experience and one that people will crawl through glass to be part of. Unfortunately, too many Masses are not done right and so they become another option in our too hectic lives.

    It is the responsiblity of all of us to bring the teachings of Christ to the people but it is correspondingly, the responsiblity of those who have power within our Church to make the Eucharist a celebration that will draw people in; an event that transforms lives and spirits and not merely an bland ritual devoid of beauty.

  7. A well done liturgy is extremely, extremely important. But it is the faith in people’s hearts that needs most to be built up and the rest will follow.
    One road to doing that is to positively uplift people with examples of faith-filled Catholics who inspire by the witness they have given. We need to hear more positive stories about converts (like Dr. Bernard Nathanson) and heroes (like the martyred Catholic Pakistani leader, Shabazz Bhatti ) woven into homilies on the Sunday readings. People still want to hear about heros who put their lives or careers on the line for The Faith and I have found parishoners respond enthusiastically.

  8. “And the Catholic Church’s ongoing sexual-abuse scandal has pushed many Catholics away, the bishop said.

    ” ‘It provided a justification for people who were already shaky in their faith,’ he said. ‘We haven’t done a good job giving people a grounding in the faith.’ ”

    I’d like to separate those two ideas, as the first only has a small part in the second. The scandals have no doubt shaken people’s faith. However, failing to ground people in their faith is something that I lay at the feet of the bishops and priests.

    They have allowed themselves to be cowed by every rabid nun seeking the next-best thing to being a priest:

    Being in charge of a parish’s religious education program.

    At every level of Holy Orders, the commission is to preach and teach the Gospel. That women are not admitted to Holy Orders is just a fact of life, and one that God ordained, not man. Yet the boys capitulated for fear of being branded misogynists. The catechesis that ensued was insipid at best, and utterly disastrous.

    In most parishes the clergy are better than 90% disconnected from religious education. Perhaps the Deacons will not appreciate my saying so, but if there is to be a paid religious ed. director for a parish, that job belongs to the deacon. It never should have been outsourced to the laity, consecrated or otherwise.

    As for the reaction to parishes closing, that’s understandable. Parishes are as much communities of people who have shared the road through life, with all of its joys and sorrows, as it is the church in which those experiences were shared.

    However, there has been a rebellion against the Magisterium regarding contraception, abortion, and the duty to grow the Church. We have gone from families of 5+ to one or two children. By the numbers alone, even if all Catholics attended mass regularly, we need only 1/2 to 1/3 of the number of churches that we needed for the large families of a half-century ago.

    We can’t have it both ways.

  9. To Gerard Nada:
    “They have allowed themselves to be cowed by every rabid nun seeking the next-best thing to being a priest:
    Being in charge of a parish’s religious education program.”

    I have worked in an Archdiocesan Religious Education Department and, for a while was a director of a parish religious education program and a consultant for a Catholic publisher of catechetical materials. In those capacities I have met quite a few nuns and lay people who were involved in parish education programs, many with graduate degrees in Theology or Religious Education.

    I certainly would like to know your data for the above quoted assertion of yours, as it has never been my experience.

  10. HMS,

    If this has never been your experience, share with us the name of your archdiocese that we may move to this mecca of faithful lay and religious leaders.

    Having graduate degrees is indicative of what, exactly? All of the great rebels in church history have held master and doctoral degrees. Many have been bishops and priests as well.

    I too have worked in archdiocesan activities, including youth and retreat ministries and have had occasion to visit many, many parishes. I also have the experience of having been involved at the vicariate level for many years, in addition to having a great many priest friends bemoaning the rebels with whom they are saddled.

    The teaching of the faith is simply not done by a majority of priests, who have outsourced this to the laity. Then they bemoan the relative lack of education among the laity. They can’t have it both ways. They cannot outsource their priestly charge to PREACH and TEACH, even if it is to a highly educated laity. This also circles back on vocational witness and the decline in seminarians.

  11. I wouldn’t venture a guess as to why but attendance at Mass is down all over the world…… from what I read. Mexico has reportedly gone from 92% Catholic to something like 60?……For me personally, Mass is painful although I go every Sunday. Communion is essential for me. But in my NM parish 2 foreign-born priests go on for 15-20min homilies and I can’t understand a word of it. I do not like all the arm-waving, hand-holding, and singing throughout the Mass. It used to be a place where I could concentrate on what life is really all about but now it seems it has become an event for the priest to perform. And banal prayers as someone wrote….My grandson is about to be confirmed and it was a 2-yr ordeal(my opinion)…I would have never gone thru that at 16….

  12. “It’s not any one reason.”

    Very likely true.

    Compare three miles vs. across the street: driving rather than walking, concerns about parking, leaving five or ten minutes earlier.

    Changing one’s habits is difficult but I believe this to be a temporary lapse in mass attendance. Eventually these people will get the gumption back. And when new neighbors move in, well, this other parish is the only option; they have no prior habits to unlearn.

  13. Gerard Nadal:

    Clarification – my challenge to you had to do with your insinuation about rabid nuns seeking the next-best thing to being a priest, which has not been my experience.

  14. Chery Hill is a typical suburban community where a ” three mile drive” is standard for almost any daily activity- movies, kids soccer game, supermarket, doctors appointment, mall, hair cut etc. With a total population of 70,000 we had 6 catholic churches ( the old saw was 1/3 Catholic, 1/3 Jewish and 1/3 protestant but I am not sure that is true anymore) and have consolidated to 4 parishes . In addition, the town borders several towns where “within 3 miles” of many residents are even more parishes – including parishes within the Trenton Diocese.

    In addition, the parishes are many things, but they are hardly homogeneous – they represent the variety and diversity of our faith in many ways– from the more conservative “Latin High Mass” to the extensive and popular Sunday evening folk music mass and everything in between.
    Some are smaller, some are larger and to be honest nearly everyone of them is vibrant.

    The diocese and Bishop have made their share of mistakes in the process of consolidating parishes and schools. Still he doesn’t get enough credit for dealing with a systemic problem in a way other then the usual chancery approach of ignore it and hope it goes away. I am certain Galante would be a lot more popular if he followed what other dioceses have done- allow numerous ” barely making it” schools and parishes to just bleed along until they all but collapse then and finally announce “another closing” Lets face it – that has been the SOP for most dioceses for years.

    The other thing he did- which I think is way under reported- is that he closed almost no parishes and schools directly but rather implemented mergers in almost every case- including merging at risk parishes and schools with healthy parishes and schools. While the result of the building closing may be the same, the school and church staffs were given equal opportunity to interview and gain positions in the new merged parish.

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