Sociologist Reginald Bibby believes Montreal churches, like Notre Dame Basilica, could see triple the number of people in their pews at Christmas. That offers an evangelization opportunity for the Church. Photo by Eric Durocher

'Christmas Catholics' an opportunity to grow Church

By  Eric Durocher
  • December 22, 2017

MONTREAL – Christmas is just around the corner, and so are thousands of Catholics who ritually fill churches every Christmas Eve.

The Archdiocese of Montreal could see up to half-a-million worshippers fill its 200-plus churches this year, according to projections generated by Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby. That’s triple the number who regularly show up every Sunday.

In the rest of Canada, numbers could jump by as much as 50 per cent.

While the “Christmas and Easter” crowd is often looked upon disparagingly, “don’t write off these people as cultural Catholics,” warned the religious-trends expert.

They represent the majority of Canadians (44 per cent) who, while ambivalent toward religion generally, comprise a solid core (42 per cent) of Catholics open to greater involvement in Church life.

That margin of openness, however, has one condition: it must be “found to be worthwhile,” he told about 100 community leaders in Montreal Nov. 30 at an event co-sponsored by the English Speaking Catholic Council and the English sector of the Archdiocese of Montreal.

“Worthwhile” for this middle or “low religion” group means ministry that meets or addresses their spiritual needs in ways that makes sense to them, Bibby said. It also includes ministry that offers people practical help with their everyday concerns, fosters personal relationships, and makes people feel comfortable seeking help and guidance.

While this core group of disaffected Catholics offers a solid evangelization opportunity to the Catholic Church in Canada, that is less so in Quebec, where those in the “low religion” group who are disposed to greater church involvement number only 20 per cent, compared with the rest of Canada at 50 per cent. Still, Quebec’s high Catholic identification rate means that an effective outreach to that 20 per cent could result in more than one million Catholics reconsidering their faith involvement, Bibby observed.

Bibby’s findings were drawn from his two recently published works, Canada’s Catholics (2016), which he co-authored with Angus Reid, and Resilient Gods (2017).

Both draw upon data from a 2015 survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute which had 3,041 respondents (including 1,152 Catholics). The authors also draw extensively on surveys conducted by Statistics Canada, the Pew Research Center and their previous studies, which span several decades.

Bibby underscored two main messages. First, the popular notion propagated by politicians, pollsters and pundits that religion is becoming increasingly irrelevant and will eventually be replaced by secularism as older generations and old habits disappear is more myth than fact.

“They’re wrong,” Bibby stated categorically, citing Pew data forecasting that, in the decades to come, the trend regarding those who profess “no religion” will level off.

In his second message, Bibby underscored that the religion factor in Canada will hold its own through increased immigration in the coming decades, and that Catholicism stands to gain significantly.

In the first decade of the new millennium, the largest number of immigrants were Roman Catholic. According to current immigration patterns, many newcomers emigrate from countries with significant Catholic populations, such as the Philippines, Mexico and France.

Bibby believes the Catholic Church is facing a double challenge for the coming decades: to develop ways to minister effectively to the “low religion” group and, at the same time, to meet the needs and expectations of the diverse groups of Catholic newcomers who will be knocking on its church doors.

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