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:
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:
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.