Sunday, May 26, 2024

Australia records sharp drop in Mass attendance

The proportion of Australia’s Catholics attending weekly Mass fell from 11.8% to 8.2% between 2016 and 2021, according to figures released this week.

The Australian Catholic Mass Attendance Report 2021 said that the number of Massgoers dropped from 623,400 to 417,350 — a fall around a third — in the five-year period.

Some of Australia’s 33 dioceses saw especially sharp declines. In the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, attendance dipped from 10,465 in 2016 to 5,443 in 2021, a 48% reduction.

The diocese in New South Wales had the country’s lowest Mass attendance rate in 2021, well below the national average at 3.7%.

The Maitland-Newcastle diocese is a suffragan of the Archdiocese of Sydney, which had an above-average Mass attendance rate of 10.4% in 2021.

But the Sydney archdiocese — arguably the country’s most prominent — also saw a significant decline in Mass attendance, from 93,365 to 61,247 over the five years, a fall of 34%.

The nationwide Mass attendance rate of 8.2% likely puts Australia at the lower end of the global spectrum, alongside countries such as Brazil and France. 

The new figures are based on a nationwide Mass attendance count held largely in May 2021, when church attendance was subject to COVID-19 restrictions

The 32-page report concluded that much of the decline “can be explained by the impact of COVID-19 restrictions and people’s cautious approach towards resuming regular patterns of social interactions in the community.”

“It is crucial to note, however, that the decline in Mass attendance cannot be solely attributed to COVID-19,” it said. 

“Other factors, such as changes in the demographics of the Catholic population, the presence or absence of immigrants, the attendance patterns of different age groups of attenders and other issues affecting the overall Catholic population in Australia, also play a role.”

The Mass attendance count coincided with the Australian Census, which took place in August 2021. The census found that Australia had a total population of 25.4 million, 20% of whom are Catholic.

Australia’s 33 dioceses include five Eastern Catholic eparchies: Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite, Syro-Malabar, and Ukrainian.

Church attendance only increased over the five years in the Chaldean and Syro-Malabar eparchies.

In the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Sydney, established in 1973, attendance rose from 3,779 in 2016 to 6,657 in 2021, a rise of 76%.

In the Syro-Malabar Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Melbourne, created in 2014, attendance grew from 4,390 in 2016 to 8,352 in 2021, an increase of 90%.

The report said: “Changes in the Catholic population are particularly affected by migration patterns, population movements and other societal changes.” 

“All the Eastern eparchies, with the exception of the Ukrainian eparchy, which remained almost the same, reported increases in their Catholic populations in 2021, which were likely due to immigration patterns, alongside an increased awareness within the local parish community to identify themselves correctly on the Census form (which those not involved with a local community would not know about).”

The report said that throughout Australia, Eucharistic liturgies were celebrated in 42 different languages, including English. The most common languages, apart from English, were Vietnamese, Arabic, Chaldean, and Italian.

The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, founded in 2012, was the only other Australian jurisdiction to see an increase in Mass attendance. Average attendance in the body for groups of former Anglicans rose from 196 in 2016 to 333 in 2021. 

The personal ordinariate underwent an apostolic visitation in 2022 and its leader Msgr. Carl Reid stood down in 2023.

In a column for Australia’s Catholic Weekly, Philippa Martyr highlighted a potentially significant trend in the age profile of Massgoers.

She wrote: “A quarter of our Sunday Massgoers are now aged over 70, but here’s the good news — people aged 18-29 now make up almost 12% of everyone at Mass. That’s double the figure of 6.5% in 2016.”

She added: “We used to have a weird demographic ‘mushroom’ — a big elderly Mass-going population supported by a thinner and thinner stalk of younger Massgoers. But this is now starting to look more like a young oak tree with a sturdier trunk and a smaller canopy.”

In recent years, the Sydney archdiocese has seen a notable increase in the number of people entering the Catholic Church through the RCIA program, with 107 in 2021, 179 in 2023, and 266 in 2024.

 The Archdiocese of Brisbane also reported its largest number of catechumens, or candidates for baptism, this year.

The next Australian national count of Mass attendance is due to take place in 2026.

The 2021 report said: “By taking a snapshot of Mass attendance in 2021, we have obtained an accurate picture of the extent of participation across the country. Explaining the changes, however, will require data from the 2026 Count to understand whether the sharp decline during this period was an isolated occurrence or part of broader trends occurring in the Church.”