Blog Post

The Changing Face of US Parishes

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS Staff Journalist A new study of Catholic parish life has found that even though the number of Catholic parishes in the U.S. has decreased, the number of Catholics has grown, making existing parishes larger and more complex. The study was conducted by The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), in collaboration with five national Catholic organizations, as part of their ongoing “Emerging Models of Parish Leadership” research. Some of the more interesting findings in the study involve the number of Catholic parishes in the U.S., which peaked in 1990 at 19,620 and dropped by 7.1 percent (1,359) in the last decade to roughly what it was in 1965. However, the U.S. Catholic population is now 75 percent higher than it was 40 years ago, totaling 77.7 million. This means there are fewer parishes serving significantly more parishioners, with the average size of Catholic parishes increasingly significantly due to the bump in population as well as to the closing of smaller parishes whose congregations are being consolidated into larger ones.  A smaller number of priests has resulted in an increase in the number of lay ecclesial ministers who are serving in Catholic parishes today, rising from under 22,000 in the early 1990s to nearly 38,000 last year. Five percent of the parishes studied were led by a parish life coordinator - which is a deacon, religious brother or sister, or layperson - rather than a resident pastor. More than half of all parish staff, including those not engaged in liturgical, catechetical or other ministries, were women. The growth of the country's Hispanic population has also changed the face of U.S. parishes, making them more ethnically diverse. For instance, in 2000, 22 percent of parishes had at least one Mass a month in a language other than English; 10 years later, 29 percent did so. “Most of these Masses, 81 percent, are in Spanish,” the study reports. “Overall, about 6 percent of all Masses [celebrated in U.S. Catholic parishes today] -- weekday and weekend -- are celebrated in Spanish.” The study also found that the long-term decline in U.S. Catholic Mass attendance since the 1950s seems to have leveled off since 2000. “As Mass attendance remains steady and the Catholic population grows, this suggests increasing demands on parishes as the real number of Catholics attending and needing sacraments increases,” the study said. More changes in Catholic parish life may be ahead with CARA projecting that by 2050, the nation’s Catholic population could range from a low of 95.4 million to a high of 128 million. © All Rights Reserved, Living His Life Abundantly®/Women of Grace®