Study finds US Catholic population growing, number of parishes shrinking

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Catholics attending Mass at their local parish. Credit: Mazur

A new study shows that the number of Masses and the size of Catholic parishes has increased in the United States, despite a decline in the number of priests and parishes.
“The scale of parish life in the United States has expanded along with the nation’s growing Catholic population,” the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project noted in a July 15 announcement of the study's findings.

“Bigger parishes, more Masses, and ministries in languages other than English are becoming the norm.”
Emerging Models' project was a collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which conducted the two-year study from 2009 to 2011.
Its findings show that over the past decade, the number of parishes has decreased about seven percent due to closings and mergers. Meanwhile, the average number of families registered per parish has grown, with a 40 percent increase in the number of Latino households registered.
Churches are also conducting more Masses throughout the week since 2010, with more than half of U.S. parishes celebrating four or more Saturday evening or Sunday Masses.

About 30 percent of parishes celebrate a Mass in a language other than English, and 6 percent of Masses are celebrated in Spanish. Around 40 percent of parishes meet the study’s “criteria for being considered a multicultural parish.”
The average number of people attending Mass on a “typical weekend” has also increased about 13 percent from 2000, the study showed. It was also found that smaller parishes have a higher proportion of members attending Mass.

Parishioners' average amount given in offertory collections has grown in the past five years, by over 14 percent. Smaller parishes also have a higher average of donations per registered family, compared to larger congregations.

The Emerging Models project drew attention to a continuing priest shortfall, stating that “although the average number of priestly ordinations in the U.S. has been about 500 per year over the last 25 years, there are fewer men being ordained than what is needed to replace an aging clergy population.”
While the number of diocesan priests, religious brothers and religious sisters is decreasing, the number of permanent deacons has grown, according to the study.
Emerging Models' data presents a hopeful outlook on the overall growth of the Catholic population, finding that Mass attendance has remained consistent during the past decade and will likely continue growing.
“U.S. parishes are likely to continue to get bigger because the number of Catholics continues to grow and is expected to continue to do so in the future,” the project predicted.
If so, the Center for Applied Research's figures suggest that “demands will increase on parishes and parish staffs as the real number of Catholics attending and needing sacraments increases.”

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