New study shows thriving parishes engage people

  • October 8, 2011

The accepted premise that religion is withering away in Canada is being debunked by a new study from Canada’s most published and quoted sociologist of religion, Reginald Bibby.

Bibby has just released numbers showing the percentage of Canadians committed to regular church attendance is rock solid. He largely attributes the continued vitality to a Catholic Church that is constantly renewing itself through immigration.

“If we were thinking, as so many people have been thinking, in terms of secularization — where religion is in retreat mode and things are bad and getting worse — we’re saying that really has been an interpretation that has been very inaccurate,” said the University of Lethbridge sociologist.

In marked contrast to Europe, where regular church attendance is 10 per cent or less, 28 per cent of Canadians go to church at least once a month.

“There’s a very durable core of people who have valued faith and continue to value faith,” Bibby said.

The author of Beyond the Gods and Back: Religion’s Demise and Rise and Why it Matters was scheduled to speak to the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario Oct. 3. His message to the bishops is that they’re part of a globally growing and vital Church, and that there are opportunities for more growth.

Nationally, 32 per cent of Canadian Catholics can be found in church pews at least one Sunday per month. But strip out Quebec and the number rises to 43 per cent. Still, Quebec isn’t dead to the faith. One-fifth of Quebec Catholics regularly attend church.

In Toronto the numbers are traditionally a little higher than the national average.

“We’ve been blessed with more consistent numbers of Catholics attending Mass due, in large part, to an immigrant population that is passionate and engaged in faith,” said Neil MacCarthy, communications director for the archdiocese of Toronto.

Evangelicals are the only Christian group with higher participation rates than Catholics. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of Canadians who call themselves Evangelical go to church regularly. But Evangelicals only account for 10 per cent of the population, while Catholics represent 38 per cent of Canadians.

“The big player in the country, of course, is the Roman Catholics. As the Roman Catholics go, that’s where the religious trends are going in Canada,” said Bibby, author of seven books about religion in Canada.

In this graph, the changes in Roman Catholic church attendance are illustrated on a national level, outside Quebec and within Quebec between 2004 and 2009.

In this graph, the changes in Roman Catholic church attendance are illustrated on a national level, outside Quebec and within Quebec between 2004 and 2009.

The numbers don’t just show that religion is alive and well in the Canadian psyche. They also point to opportunities for growth.

Canadians, including Catholics, are increasingly polarized on the subject of religion. Between 1931 and 2009 the share of Canadians who claimed to have no religion grew from one per cent to 23 per cent. While 28 per cent of Canadians go to church regularly, 42 per cent never go.

Among non-Quebec Catholics the 43 per cent who attend Mass are opposed by 23 per cent who never do.

The opportunity for evangelization lies in the mushy middle, said Bibby. The 33 per cent who show up occasionally could be persuaded to become more active in their church “if they thought there was something in it for them and their families.”

The example of the Evangelicals is particularly instructive. Where Catholic numbers are buoyed by recent immigrants who regard their Church as a safe port in the storm, Evangelicals are much more successful retaining and maintaining participation among the members they already have, especially in terms of transferring church attachment from one generation to the next.

“Front and centre, (Canadians) want a faith that can have an impact on their own personal lives and the people they value most, primarily their families,” said Bibby.

Getting to Catholics who are still open to greater participation in church life is mostly a matter of community building, said MacCarthy.

“We can learn from these groups (of new Canadians), where church isn’t just a spiritual home but a community hub that includes prayer, fellowship and outreach,” he said. “When a parish has these elements that directly engage the flock, we see them thrive.”

The fact that far more Canadians go to church than watch Hockey Night In Canada doesn’t necessarily translate into political heft for Christians, said Bibby.

“One of the things people very much endorse is not just talking about personal needs and personal spirituality, but being able to speak to all of life and speak to social realities as well,” he said.

While that sounds like an endorsement for politically engaged church leaders, it turns out that few Canadians will follow that political lead.

“If a group goes off in a direction where it’s primarily concerned about justice issues, and I think that’s been the case with some mainline Protestant churches, that’s fine but what do (church leaders) say with respect to my child whom I’m concerned about, or my teenager, or my marriage that is falling apart?”

Research in Quebec shows even Catholics who refuse to go to church are firmly attached to their religious roots. While 97 per cent of churchgoing Quebec Catholics say they would never consider switching religious allegiances, 96 per cent of non-churchgoers also say they wouldn’t switch.

Who will convert whom? It may come down to the efforts of ordinary parishioners. “Parishes that are able to engage parishioners more directly are the ones that are thriving,” said MacCarthy. “There are tremendous gifts in all of our parishes. The one-to-one invitation to become more engaged cannot be underestimated.”

London bucks the trend

By Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special

LONDON, Ont. - Although church attendance is holding steady in much of Canada, societal trends over the past couple of decades are taking their toll on the diocese of London.

Church attendance is down, fewer people are receiving sacraments and the number of priests is expected to continue declining in coming years, according to statistics in a report of demographic trends in southwestern Ontario related to Church affiliation.

In a statement to parishioners, London Bishop Ronald Fabbro said he found the report, commissioned by the diocese in the fall of 2010,  “hard to read,” noting “many of us are saddened by the losses our Church has experienced in our own lifetime.”

The report, released in late September, follows a major restructuring in which churches were closed, parishes merged and a few new churches built in the diocese. It lays the ground work for how the diocese will respond with regard to providing sufficient priests, deacons and ecclesial ministers. “The next step is our pastoral planning,” said Fabbro.

The study found that while more than one-third of the population of the diocese’s vast geographic area identified themselves as Catholic, participation in the sacraments has dropped 30 to 65 per cent among the seven deaneries dating back to the early 1990s. Mass attendance figures are just for three years, but 61 per cent of parishes had declines with a general 3.5-per-cent drop.

Fabbro said only 14 per cent of all Catholics in the diocese “are in church on Sunday,” a figure he described as “alarming.” Nationally, according to a recent study by sociologist Reginald Bibby, 32 per cent of Catholics attend church regularly (at least once a month).

The report points to general societal trends that have affected religious adherence, including an aging population, non-Catholic immigration, common-law and single-parent families.

Communication, particularly to those under 35, is a problem, Fabbro admitted. He said that when the diocese was preparing a letter insert for parish bulletins he was told “these generations don’t read bulletins” but connect more online through social media. “So I think if those younger generations aren’t in our churches we’ve got to go where they are at,” he said.

Fabbro said “really sobering” was the projected decline in priests, from 100 today to 73 by 2025. In 1991 the diocese was served by 178 priests.

To combat the trends, meetings are being carried out with clergy and diocesan leaders, with parishioner input, starting this fall with a goal to “enact changes” by June of next year.

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