The Deacon's Bench

Grim numbers from Ohio point to a larger trend in the American Church:

Almost two out of three Catholics in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky won’t go to church this weekend to celebrate Mass, an event they have been told since childhood is the center of their spiritual lives.

The church’s most recent count of people in the pews found that about 290,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and 60,000 in the Diocese of Covington skip Mass in a typical week.

The annual attendance count begins again next month, but church officials don’t expect dramatic improvement.

Mass attendance has been falling steadily for decades across the country as a growing majority of Catholics find other things to do on Sundays, from shuttling their kids to soccer games to hitting the snooze button and sleeping in.

The reasons for the decline have been debated for years, with fingers pointed at busier schedules, a changing culture and discontent with Catholic leaders.

But whatever the explanation, the absence of so many Catholics from the most important gathering of their faith is a major challenge for the church.

“There are serious problems, structural problems, all up and down the line,” said William D’Antonio, who has studied Mass attendance for almost 25 years at the Catholic University of America. “If you’re asking what are the future trends, they’re bleak.”

Not everyone is so pessimistic, but bishops and priests recognize the trend is headed in the wrong direction. Mass attendance fell by about 41,000 in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in the past decade and by about 7,000 in the Diocese of Covington – a drop of almost 20 percent for each diocese.

According to last year’s attendance count, 62 percent of the 468,000 Catholics who are registered at parishes in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and 67 percent of the 89,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Covington will not go to Mass on any given week.

D’Antonio said national surveys he’s conducted since 1987 show sharp generational differences, with older Catholics attending Mass far more often than younger Catholics. He said just 20 percent of Catholics born after 1978 regularly attend Mass.

“I do see the value in it, but it’s just not for me right now,” said Dani Patton, 26, a Mount Adams resident who was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools but now rarely attends Mass. “I still feel Catholic because I was so engaged in it growing up. But I don’t feel aligned with it any more.”

D’Antonio said unless young Catholics such as Patton can be brought back into the fold, attendance will keep falling as the older, church-going generations fade away.

The result could be devastating for parishes, which would lose not only people, but also spiritual and financial support for schools, food pantries and other activities that have defined Catholic churches for centuries.

“There’s an entire generation of Catholics that kind of lost their sense of what is right and wrong, of what it is to be a Catholic,” said the Rev. Geoff Drew, pastor of St. Maximilian Kolbe church in Liberty Township. “Mass is not optional. It’s an obligation.”

Read on for more.

Okay. Any practical thoughts on how we can turn this around?

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