MASS ATTENDANCE CONTINUES TO DWINDLE IN THE DIOCESE
ERIE — Observant parishioners in the Diocese of Erie may notice that when they attend Mass during October, ushers and other volunteers have an added duty. Using clickers or simply counting heads, they do their best to quantify approximately how many people attend each Mass at each parish on each Sunday in October.
The October Count, as it’s known, resulting in a single figure for each parish averaged from attendance numbers collected all four Sundays of the month, has been taken in the Diocese of Erie for more than two decades. It provides data that is always understood to be helpful, rather than scientifically accurate. Comparing it year to year, it captures trends and provides individual parishes as well as the administrative offices of the diocese with insights that can be helpful for planning everything from Mass times to future needs.
Due to the pandemic, the count was not taken in 2020, a first-time aberration. It’s likely this year’s numbers are slightly lower than they might have been, given the surge of the Delta variant of COVID-19 which occurred at just about that time. Whatever the reason, attendance is down by 32.2 percent over the last two years, a figure confirmed by data submitted from parishes across the diocese. The total loss in attendance at Sunday Mass has dropped by 48.6 percent since 2012.
While these numbers have always been available for administrative purposes, Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico says it is important they be made public. He has asked that figures for the last five years be made available online going forward. The 2021 report is available at www.eriercd.org/octcount.html.
“It’s the people who make up our parishes, and
they need to realize what’s happening. They need to recognize that we’re changing, whether we like it or not,” he said. “No one likes change, especially when it comes to the church. But I want parishioners to know this information is not being pulled out of thin air. It’s part of the data that helps ensure decisions aren’t made on an arbitrary basis.”
For the first time this year, livestreamed Masses were taken into account in a separate count, but are not included in the report as tracking views does not provide the full picture. It's not possible, for instance, to know if several people were watching together. In addition, this was the first year the numbers were captured. Views ranged from 3 to 1,710 for different parishes.
The October Count demonstrates that the challenges ahead are not merely the result of fewer men becoming priests, but also because there are fewer people in the pews. The number of church buildings and parishes will no doubt continue to decrease into the foreseeable future
Many components of the pastoral planning that began in the Diocese of Erie in 2014 were geared to this reality. Parishes were merged and partnered and charged with making additional recommendations within their regions, always with the goal of creating vibrant, life-giving communities. A new emphasis has been placed on vocations, and the approach to faith formation has broadened its focus from religious education classes to life-long faith formation.
“We need to evangelize, of course,” Bishop Persico says. “That has always been our mission. Part of the New Evangelization is about inspiring those who are still practicing the faith and reaching out to those who have left it. Those are among our most pressing priorities.”