Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge says it would be “naïve” to ignore the role the child sexual abuse crisis has played in a slight drop in Mass attendance figures in recent years.
But Archbishop Coleridge said it is also important to consider other reasons affecting the number of people regularly attending Mass across the country.
According to new figures from the National Centre for Pastoral Research, the percentage of the overall Catholic population that attends Mass regularly has fallen from 12.2 per cent in 2011 to 11.8 per cent in 2016.
“There are many factors that could contribute to this drop in Mass attendance among those who tick ‘Catholic’ on the Census, but it would be naïve to assume the Church’s appalling failure in the area of child protection wasn’t among them,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“The Royal Commission had been running for three-and-a-half years by the time this Mass count was done. Across society, though, religious adherence – and certainly religious practice – is on the decline and the demands of work on weekends, including Sundays, is part of the current reality.”
Archbishop Coleridge said it’s also important to acknowledge the resilience and faithfulness of those who go to Mass regularly despite disturbing revelations and societal trends.
“It can be a challenge for people to own their Catholic faith publicly these days, but 623,000 people were showing up each week in 2016,” he said.
“We also welcome people on a less regular basis. It’s through their connection with the liturgical life of a parish that the Church can be the ‘field hospital’ that Pope Francis speaks of. We all need that spiritual balm in our lives.”
The National Count of Attendance has been carried out every five years since 2001 to coincide with the year of the national Census, allowing Mass attendance to be considered alongside nationally consistent data. It is the result of the average Mass count on four Sundays in May.
It includes attendance at Masses in parishes, migrant Mass centres, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, religious houses, university and other chaplaincies, and boarding schools, as well as Sunday assemblies in the absence of a priest.
The 2016 Mass attendance figures could only be compiled when all 2016 Census data was released. A full report will be published later this year.
Trudy Dantis, director of the National Centre for Pastoral Research, said analysis of the figures at a diocesan level can be difficult, because a range of factors – including people’s education level, country of birth and cultural connectedness – can affect the local attendance counts.
“As with all research, we must be mindful of what the data tells us, but also what the data cannot tell us, including the causes of various changes in behaviour,” Dr Dantis said.
Additional national demographic data from the 2016 Census regarding the Catholic population will be released later this week.
More on the National Count of Attendance figures can be found on the NCPR website.