Sharp decline in mass attendance for Providence Diocese

PROVIDENCE, RI (WLNE) – A report released last week by the Diocese of Providence outlines a sharp decline in mass attendance, priests in active ministry, along with a lower number of sacramental celebrations.

The Pastoral Profile was made public on Sept. 5. In a message to Catholics by Bishop Thomas Tobin, he said that the ‘numbers don’t lie’ and that the Diocese is experiencing a ‘quantitative decline.’

In 2000, the number of people attending mass was 187,708, while in 2018, 79,936 people went to church; a decline of almost 60 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of weekend masses dropped, priests in active ministry is down by a third, all while the number of parishioners reported dropped by more than 200,000. 

Meanwhile, the state’s population has increased.

There are lots of theories as to why this is happening, but Father Timothy D. Reilly, chancellor of the Diocese of Providence who gathered an overwhelming amount of the data, believes it’s a sign of the times, and the issue is a difference in generations.

“I think it’s lack of identification with a parish. We’re aging out too, as far as not having that next generation of faithful Catholics,” Father Reilly said. “It’s not a surprise. We knew this was coming.”

Father Reilly said the numbers are reported by individual parishes, and may not necessarily reflect the number of people actually going to church.

“People tend not to register anymore, whereas that was a great way to track people we have a basic idea of the census of the church,” he said.

But David Kertzer, an author, and professor of religious studies at Brown University said people are leaving the church because of the recent sex abuse scandals uncovered in the last few decades.

He also said there’s a tension going on between conservative Catholics, which he said is the philosophy of Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin, and those of more progressive Catholics, like Pope Francis.

He said these two factors are turning people away.

“Turned off a large number of Catholics and certainly affected a number of disaffected Catholics who are sort of abandoning the church,” he said. “The same time the sex scandals are playing out there’s this other more general a line of tension in the church this too, we’ll see how that plays out, will also have an impact on attendance and allegiance to the Catholic Church.”

Father Reilly disagrees, saying it’s a generational problem, and the church knew this would eventually happen and are just waiting for the numbers to level out.

“We saw the decline coming for decades. I think that’s a part of it certainly but not as huge a part as people think,” Reilly said.

The Diocese also reports a decline in marriages, baptisms, communions, and confirmations.