Last year, attendance at the big Christmas Eve Mass at my parish was shockingly low — about 200, for a liturgy that in years past would welcome over 1,000. Will things be better this year? We’re hoping and praying.

But around the country, pews in Catholic churches may have a lot of empty space to fill.

Msgr. Eric Barr looks at what has been happening:

People are people. They often drift to the lowest common denominator even in worship. Once a bishop lifts the obligation to go to Mass and one can miss without committing mortal sin, the human mind just doesn’t take seriously the bishop’s re-imposition of the obligation with the mortal sin penalty. A person usually says, “Last week it wasn’t a mortal sin to miss mass; this week it is–so says the bishop. I think not.”  The parishioner in this anti-authoritarian age doesn’t accept that kind of episcopal authority. So, the believer exempts themselves from going to Mass.

Now, some of these actions taken by the bishops were necessary, even lifting the Sunday Mass Obligation. But none of the bishops and few pastors reckoned with human nature and put in fail-safes to help people come back. The Barna Group estimates that only  40-50% of Mass going Catholics have returned to weekly Mass (Churches changed during the pandemic and many aren’t going back – HotAir). My own unscientific perusal of my brother pastors concurs in this assessment. The die-hard believers have returned. Those only moderately attached to the parish have not. And as for those on the peripheries–they were already gone before the pandemic.

In essence, what the pandemic did was hasten the already dramatic decline in Catholic Mass Attendance that started in earnest 20 years ago, and went catastrophic beginning a decade ago. The pandemic is a dagger stabbed into the heart of Catholicism and the leaders of the Church, the doctors of the soul, bishops, priests and deacons don’t want to do the surgery necessary to save the patient. In all honesty, I really don’t think they see the danger. I believe they think things will go back to normal. But they will not. When the bubonic plague ceased its major ravaging of Europe 700 years ago, it took many decades for the Church to call back the disenchanted and skeptical people who weren’t sure religion had been very helpful during the sickness.

Dr. Ryan Burge, political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, has written a book called The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going. His studies show “Church attendance is the first thing that goes, then belonging, and finally belief—in that order,” he says. “Belief goes last.”

If that is true, it explains where our absent Catholics are on that scale. They no longer attend, but still believe. It’s the belonging piece that is in danger. Such a worry for us, but such an opportunity.

Read on to see his suggestions. He makes some excellent points, including:

Priests have pressed hard on Eucharistic adoration, but, in fact, much of this labor would be better spent in creating liturgies with beautiful music where the Novus Ordo is celebrated reverently with a sense of transcendence. Focusing on Eucharistic adoration outside of Mass sounds like it would work, but it only gets the already authentic Eucharistic devotees to participate in it. Ordinary parishioners simply do not. The numbers bear this out. Eucharistic adoration needs to be done but as one piece to the puzzle of bringing a Eucharistic sense of Real Presence back to the parishioners.

Case in point: Just this week, I led a Holy Hour at a neighboring parish in Queens — complete with Adoration, Benediction and a reflection on Advent — and a church that seats several hundred contained, for that hour, about a dozen people. A third of them were nuns from the parish. (The pastor told me that a Holy Hour the previous night, in Spanish, fared worse.) At my own parish, we get similar numbers when we have weekly Benediction on Thursday nights. A couple years ago, we did a nine-week vocations novena, with guest speakers each week. Turnout: 10 or 12 people. This, in a parish that routinely gets strong numbers for events like the Corpus Christi procession and the special liturgy/chaplet for Divine Mercy Sunday.

Our numbers dropped dramatically after the COVID lockdowns were lifted, and I’m happy to say they have inched up. But the difference is stark. Weekly estimates put us at 50-60%; a Mass that once drew 500 -600 people is bringing 250-300.  (We also livestream Masses on Sunday, and they average 100-150 views per Mass each week.) I’ve been told that some parishioners have opted out of Sunday Mass, and come instead to the liturgies during the week; those Masses have fewer people and give people the chance to spread out and practice social distancing.

Despite all that, people are continuing to support the parish. Weekly collections are stable. Parishioners have started giving electronically or though the mail.

But for whatever reason — anxiety, fear, indifference, too many other things to do — people are not filling the pews like they used to.

We have a lot of work to do.