A priest holds the Eucharist in this illustration. CNS photo/Bob Roller

Canadians rank low in Mass attendance

  • February 2, 2023

In Nigeria, 94 per cent of Catholics say they go to Mass at least once a week. In Canada, 14 per cent. In Quebec, two per cent.

The Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. has assembled country-by-country numbers for 36 nations and discovered huge variations in participation and identification with the Church among Catholics.  Relying on the 2017 to 2022 Wave Seven of the World Values Survey (a study that has been ongoing through seven waves of polling since the 1980s), the numbers show Canada tied with Germany for the sixth lowest Mass attendance.

Asked whether they consider themselves “a religious person,” Canadian Catholics are tied with New Zealand Catholics at the bottom of the table. Only 55 per cent of Canadians who say they are Catholic would also say they are basically “religious.”

Compared to other developed English-speaking countries, Canadian Catholics lag by at least seven per cent on Mass attendance. Self-reported Mass attendance in Australia comes in at 21 per cent, in the United States 24 per cent, in New Zealand and the United Kingdom 25 per cent.

World map showing the Mass attendance in certain countriesSource: World Values Survey, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate

The World Values Survey does not distinguish between anglophone and francophone Canadians. Quebec’s disaffection with the Church is a factor in Canada’s lower numbers.

“For many years, the rate of religious practice in Quebec has been between two and five per cent,” Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops general secretary Msgr. Pierre Murray told The Catholic Register. “Most of the time, it’s closer to two per cent.”

Quebec’s bishops now find themselves with too many churches and not enough people to fill them.

“Since 2003, more than a quarter of places of worship (chapels or churches) in Quebec have been closed, abandoned or are undergoing conversion due to a lack of means to maintain them,” Murray said.

In a 2021 pastoral letter to Quebecers the bishops, along with Quebec’s Foreign Mission Society, make it clear there’s no room for nostalgia.

“For a long time, Quebec has ceased to be a society that sees itself in terms of Christianity. And our future surely does not consist in seeking to return to that situation,” they wrote.

“In an increasingly secularized world, where the very fact of believing in God seems to many nonsense, every baptized person is called and sent so that one’s way of living fraternity radiates more and more from the One who inhabits that person.”

A missionary Church of encounter is the future, said Montreal Archbishop Christian Lepine in a Jan. 14 New Year’s address.

“If we truly know Jesus, we must proclaim Him to the world,” he said. “Our Holy Father reminds us that ‘in these troubling times, when our human family, already tested by the trauma of the pandemic, is racked by the tragedy of war, Mary shows to all of us the path of proximity and encounter.”

Sociologist of religion David Seljak of St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo warns that the CARA-World Values Survey numbers shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

“Self-reports are notoriously unreliable, especially for surveys on church attendance, diet and sex,” Seljak said. “Self-report is influenced by how often people feel they should go to Mass.”

The vast distance between Nigerian self-reported Mass attendance and Canadian attendance may have something to do with whether or not Canadians are embarrassed about missing Mass.

That Canada was the first country to have a major, public clerical sex abuse scandal (Mount Cashel Orphanage in the 1980s), and Canadians in and outside the Church have been scandalized by the history of Church involvement in residential schools, are certainly factors but not the only reason why Canadians are cool to the Church, said Seljak.

“It predates all of those phenomena. It started in the 1950s, in fact, and has accelerated since then,” Seljak said. “In the 1950s, to be a respectable Canadian, one had to be a Christian — and a certain type of Christian. People internalized that message. It became part of their identity. Consequently, they made significant efforts to identify with a Church and attend services. That is no longer the case. One can think of one’s self as an acceptable, respected, full member of Canadian society without being religious. Hence, the latest census shows the number of Canadians without religion to be at an all-time high.”

In a blog post, the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate draws attention to the correlation between high income countries and low church attendance.

“Mass attendance falls sharply as GDP per capita rises to $10,000 and then this drop slows and flattens as GDP (gross domestic product) per capita continues to increase,” said the unsigned blog post.

Nigerian-Canadian theologian Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, rejects the CARA analysis.

“In the parish in Mississauga where I used to minister when I was at U of T, I knew many wealthy people who were very deeply religious,” he said.

The idea that secularization rises with urbanization and income has been around since German sociologist Max Weber proposed the theory at the turn of the 20th century. More than a century later, Ilo believes there are better explanations.

“There’s a specific Western problem that does not just have to do with economic disparity or poverty,” Ilo told The Catholic Register. “Secularism and the disaffiliation to religious faith in the West is not just simply a function of GDP. It’s also a function of the connection between Western culture that is tied to Christendom.”

Conquest, colonialism, Church resistance to democracy, the rise of pluralism and the moral questions that arise from the globalized diversity of modern life as reflected in modern media have weighed upon the institution of the Church, Ilo said.

“If you ask people why they are leaving the Church, it’s not that they don’t believe in something divine. It’s more to do with their institutional disaffiliation,” he said.

Through the COVID years, Ilo has researched how people in Canada and the United States understood their connection, or disconnection, with the Church through periods of lockdown and restrictions on large gatherings. Ilo asked Catholics what kept them connected to the Church through the lockdowns.

“What worked most — and this was consistent in Chicago, in Toronto, in Peterborough, in New York, in San Diego where I made these random samplings — was phone calls,” Ilo said.

As he assembles his research into a book, Ilo worries the lessons of COVID may be forgotten and the personal outreach represented by priests calling up their parishioners remains rare.

“What is not working is our communication with people,” he said. “When people are not being encountered, when the Church is becoming alienated or distant from their reality, when it is becoming hard to meet your bishop or meet your priests – so we have become remote. … We need to go back to really one-on-one relationships.”

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