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Mass attendance sags amid pandemic

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The last diocesan-wide Mass count was conducted in October 2019, three months before a mysterious virus was officially named COVID-19, and well before anyone could predict the trials to follow. The diocese suspended public celebrations of the Mass March 16, 2020, which prompted many to rely on “virtual Masses” to help sustain them through a challenging time. By the end of May 2020, public Masses resumed, albeit with restrictions in place such as capacity limits. 

The latest diocesan Mass count, conducted in October of this year, indicates that most Catholics have returned to weekly Mass attendance at their local churches, although tens of thousands have not — presenting an evangelization challenge to pastors and laity alike. The count showed weekend Mass attendance declined 7.3 percentage points since the last Mass count in 2019. This fall, approximately 22 percent of the estimated 446,500 registered Catholics attended Sunday/Saturday vigil Masses.

“In reviewing the Mass attendance numbers, the trend seems to reflect that ongoing concerns about COVID-19 and COVID variants are impacting some people’s return to Mass,” said Father Jamie R. Workman, diocesan vicar general. “There is optimism among many pastors that, when the public health situation improves, many of the faithful will feel comfortable returning to full participation in parish life and worship.”

He added that Catholics have made their presence known in other ways as well.

“Despite lower than normal in-person Mass attendance, the faithful have been extraordinarily generous in support of diocesan and parish ministries,” he said. “This has allowed us to serve the poor and vulnerable throughout the pandemic, and it has also supported the catechetical and evangelizing efforts of our parishes, which have emphasized the importance and centrality of Mass and the celebration of the Eucharist.”

There was no Mass count in 2020 because there was no obligation to attend Mass during that time due to the coronavirus pandemic. In early summer 2021, the region’s bishops announced that the general dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass would be lifted during the June 26-27 weekend, with limited exceptions.

“This obligation does not apply to those who are ill; those who have reason to believe that they were recently exposed to the coronavirus, another serious or contagious illness; those who are confined to their home, a hospital, or nursing facility; or those with serious underlying health conditions,” said the bishops in a June 2 announcement. 

Several pastors said they have seen gradual increases in attendance in the nearly six months since most people have been obligated to attend Sunday Mass.

Father J.D. Jaffe, pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church in Sterling, said the parish saw a 5 percent increase in Mass attendance after the dispensation was lifted. “We have seen another 10 percent increase, maybe a little less, since the start of school,” he said. “Since kids are back in school and attending religious education classes, families seem to be starting to get back into their regular routine, including Mass.” However, the parish is still below pre-pandemic Mass attendance numbers.

Father Thomas P. Ferguson, pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria, noticed an uptick in the spring when older parishioners could get vaccinated, in the summer after the dispensation was lifted and once the school year began. “Since we resumed the public Masses, we’ve never seen a decline. It’s been ever increasing,” he said this fall.

Many of his parishioners were extremely grateful when Communion services and then public Masses resumed. “Many people were in tears when they could receive the Eucharist again,” he said. “Missing it made them realize how important receiving the Eucharist was for them.”

But others still have not returned to church. “My gut feeling from the very beginning (of the pandemic lockdowns) was that there’s a certain number of people who are on the margins who may never come back. They came to church because it was a routine, but when the routine went away, it did not come back,” said Father Ferguson. “This crisis is going to force us to really emphasize our evangelization efforts. We have got to really redouble our efforts now to bring them back to church.”

For the average weekend in October 2021, the 76 parishes/missions and two campus ministries in the diocese reported a total of 98,443 persons in attendance at 395 regularly scheduled Masses. The average number of weekend Masses per parish is five, but 42 percent of parishes have six or more Sunday/Saturday Vigil Masses.

Compared to 2019, this year there were 16 fewer English-language Masses and 28,320 fewer attendees. There are four more Spanish-language Masses but 5,617 fewer attendees. The number of Masses celebrated in other languages and the number of attendees at those Masses stayed relatively stable. The total number of regularly scheduled weekend Masses has gone from 408 to 395. 

Prior Mass counts showed that 30.2 percent of registered Catholics attended weekly Mass in 2017, 29.6 percent in 2018 and 29.3 percent in 2019. Studies from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) show that nationally before the pandemic, around 21 percent of Catholics attended Mass at least once a week. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021