Papal Visits, Past and Present

Papal Visits, Past and Present

There’s naturally a lot of excitement about our Holy Father’s visit to the U.S. in just a few weeks.  So I thought that, for perspective, it might be interesting to consider what the Catholic Church in our country looked like at the time of the first Papal visit, of Pope Paul VI in 1965, and the first visit of Saint Pope John Paul II in 1979, compared to the church today.   The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (known as CARA), which keeps statistics on the Catholic Church in the U.S., has a few enlightening things to say:  Let’s start with some numbers from 1965:

  • The church “workforce” of clergy and religious sisters and brothers is now 57% smaller than it was in 1965;
  • There are 21,000 fewer priests now, but more than 18,000 permanent deacons (a ministry which did not exist in 1965);
  • The number of parishes is about the same, but they are in new places.  (The total number of U.S. parishes peaked in 1988 at 19,705, then began to decline again.  In 1965 there were 17,765 parishes; in 2014, 17,337). The Catholic population is moving out of the Northeast and Midwest, where parishes are being closed, and into the South and West, where new parishes are being established;
  • More people were entering the Catholic Church in 1965 (1,398,087) than now (870,396 in 2014, the last year for which figures are available).  This includes infant baptisms and adult initiation;
  • The Sacrament in steepest decline since 1965 is Matrimony.  In 1965 there were 355,182 Catholic marriages; in 2014, 148,134;

Sometimes there are no good figures going back to 1965, but using 1979 (the year Saint Pope John Paul II first visited the U.S.), here are some more comparisons:

  • More Catholics now say they are of Mexican ancestry (23%) than of Irish (26%) or Italian (17%) ancestry.  (Catholics of Mexican ancestry are now the single largest ethnic group in the U.S. Church);
  • In 1979 there were an estimated 3.1 million former Catholics; in 2014 the number is estimated to be 25.0 million;
  • The percentage attending Mass at least once a month has declined from 63% of adult Catholics to 46%;
  • The percentage attending Mass weekly has declined from 41% to 24%;
  • The percentage of divorced Catholics has risen from 4% to 12%;
  • The percentage of married Catholics has declined from 64% to 54%;
  • The percentage of never-married Catholics has increased from 19% to 27%.

These numbers may provide some substance (and, oddly, reassurance) to what we’ve been observing.  Since Our Lady of Grace is in the Northeast, a region in the U.S. where one commentator described the Catholic Church’s numbers as being “in freefall,” it’s no surprise that attendance at Mass, numbers of young people receiving the sacraments (especially Matrimony), and the like are lower than we remember from past eras.  These are nationwide or regional trends; we’re simply riding the wave.  Similarly, the news stories about the closing and merging of parishes in dioceses around ours are reflections of that fact that the centers of Catholic population are moving out of the urban areas of the Northwest and Midwest.  If you vacation to Florida or Arizona and see new, packed churches – that’s not because they’re doing something better than we do; it’s because that’s increasingly where the Catholics are.

So enjoy, and learn from, our Holy Father’s visit.  And understand the Catholic context into which he comes.  More next week.  Until then, peace.