Persons, places and things: We need more Catholics


By Barb Arland-Fye

A letter writer, frustrated with the diocesan-wide parish planning process, blames the Church hierarchy and teaching for the shortage of priests – and the possibility of fewer Masses at his parish. But he makes no mention of the shortage of people in the pews!

Those of us who attend Mass regularly may be so absorbed in celebration of the liturgy that we fail to notice the empty spaces in the congregation or fellow Catholics we haven’t seen for weeks at a time.

The reminder — a study that shows just 23 percent of self-identified adult Catholics attend Mass every week and 31.4 percent attend in any given week — ought to serve as a wake-up call.  I’ve probably seen these statistics previously, but they had more impact this past Sunday, when I was sitting in class with deacon candidates, their spouses and other classmates in the Master of Pastoral Theology Program. Deacon Frank Agnoli, the Davenport Diocese’s director of deacon formation, shared these survey results in a PowerPoint presentation as part of his weekend instruction.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, conducted the survey at the behest of the U.S. bishops. CARA’s 2008 report, titled “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice among U.S. Catholics,” offers a fascinating look at Catholics’ participation in sacramental life, beliefs about the sacraments and other issues of importance to the Church. You can read the survey online at:


Among the survey’s conclusions that I found most interesting is the importance of the sacraments in Catholics’ lives. CARA reports that more than eight in 10 Catholics said the following four sacraments are either somewhat or very meaningful to them: marriage (89 percent), baptism (88 percent), the Eucharist (84) percent and confirmation (83) percent.

For those who attend Mass weekly, all seven sacraments are at least somewhat meaningful to them. So, what about the other sacraments? How should we interpret the value of holy orders, reconciliation and anointing of the sick in the lives of Catholics?  We discussed some possible reasons in class, but didn’t reach any overarching conclusions.

 In the Davenport Diocese we lost 1,878 parishioners between 2008 (100,777) and 2009 (98,899), according to statistics provided by Father George McDaniel, diocesan chancellor and archivist. We lost 152 families between 2008 (37,356) and 2009 (37,204). Baptisms were up slightly — by six — from 1,729 in 2008 to 1,735 in 2009.

The number of individuals receiving first Communion increased by 47 — from 1,619 in 2008 to 1,666 in 2009. Confirmations were down by 156 — from 1,540 in 2008 to 1,384 in 2009. Fr. McDaniel noted that figure comes from different parishes in each of the two years, so the change may not be significant. Fewer marriages — 83 — were performed in 2009 (435) than in 2008 (518). And fewer deaths were reported — 106 — between 2008 (1,122) and 2009 (1,016). These figures reflect a downward trend compared with statistics listed in diocesan directories a decade ago. Meanwhile, total population in our diocese (non-Catholics and Catholics alike) has remained in the low to mid-700,000 range.

What’s keeping Catholics away? Why is Mass not more of a priority? Those questions need to be answered as we plan for the future of our 80 parishes in this diocese. Having fewer Masses and more parishes sharing priests may fit the needs of the Catholic Church in this era.

The letter writer I mentioned at the beginning of this column writes that he’s shaking his fist at the “lack of leadership from our ‘shepherds’ in Rome.” 

The lack of vocations, in the letter writer’s mind, is the result of the Church’s unbending position concerning a male, celibate priesthood. The letter writer wonders whether this teaching is truly God’s will. 

When I worked for the secular press, I came across many church bulletins in which Protestant congregations that accepted married and female clergy were patiently waiting for a new pastor, some for as long as two years!

We need more Catholics in the pews, more Catholics participating in the sacraments — or there won’t be a need for more priests.

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