National study to investigate reasons for decline in Mass attendance

Celebrating Mass. Image by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

A century and a half ago St John Henry Newman preached in awe at St Mary the Virgin at Oxford on the meaning of the Eucharist, reminding his congregants that we live at all times in the presence of God.  

“He is not past, he is present now. And though he is not seen, he is here. The same God who walked the water, who did miracles, etc, is in the tabernacle. We come before him, we speak to him just as he was spoken to … years ago,” the saint said.  

“It is really most wonderful to see this Divine Presence looking out almost into the open streets from the various churches. I never knew what worship was, as an objective fact, till I entered the Catholic Church.” 

The saint’s profound encounter of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist stands in stark contrast to the experience of many Catholics today, who have ceased to regularly engage in Sunday worship.  

We have seen in Australia over this past decade a decline in the participation of Catholics in the sacramental life of the church, with the Mass and the Eucharist at its heart but in baptism and matrimony as well. 

With the national Mass attendance rate now at just over eight per cent, it is timely that the National Centre for Pastoral Research (NCPR) will soon commence a study of reported reasons why those who continue to affiliate as Catholics do not participate regularly in Sunday Mass.  

decline in Mass attendance - The Catholic weekly
Celebrating Mass. Image by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

Entitled “Absent from the Table” the national study will raise questions about the contemporary religious practice and beliefs of Catholics in Australia, and the place of the Eucharist in their spiritual lives.  

The findings will assist pastoral leaders to better understand the self-understanding of these Catholics, identify how their expression of Catholic identity may have changed, and suggest responses and strategies for seeking to encourage participation in this primary act of worship.  

Previous studies that have been conducted in this field suggest that there are multiple reasons why Catholics do not attend Mass, including personal beliefs, dissatisfaction with church practices, and competing obligations.  

However, the existing literature is limited in scope and pre-dates the impact of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the restrictions imposed on churches in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and public debate over issues including same-sex unions and euthanasia, and present threats to religious freedom.  

Promisingly the study will bolster the intent of Decree Nine of the Plenary Council of Australia which acknowledged the need for greater “renewal in catechesis, formation, and devotion” to the Eucharist.  

A better grasp of the self-understanding of non-attending Catholics and their stance toward the Eucharist opens opportunity for formation that is attuned to the questions, priorities and historical experience of a large proportion of the baptised within our church.  

Director of the NCPR Dr Trudy Dantis will lead the two-year project alongside her team including senior researcher of the NCPR, Dr Stephen Reid. 

decline in Mass attendance - The Catholic weekly
Mass during the St Joseph camino walk. Image by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

“The first stage of the project, a national survey, will seek participants through dioceses, parishes, schools, support agencies, Catholic universities and other Catholic organisations and groups,” explained Dr Reid. 

“Following the survey stage of the project, a second stage will involve collection of more in-depth information using interviews. A report of the findings of the project will be completed in November 2025.” 

Broadly speaking, we know that many of the church’s attempts at evangelisation have not been able to remediate disengagement and non-engagement among Catholics from participation in Sunday Mass in local parishes and faith communities.  

Many of these communities tend to focus on evangelisation initiatives that appeal to already engaged Catholics rather than outreach to those who identify as such but do not attend Mass.  

Furthermore, our Catholic families, schools, church agencies and social service providers are all affected by this phenomenon which is not merely a matter of outward behaviour but more deeply a matter of interior faith.  

The questions of disposition for and participation in the Eucharist touch upon the vitality of our communion as a church and our fundamental orientation toward Christ present at its centre, without which the conversion and mission given to the church cannot bear fruit. 

Daniel Ang is the Director of the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation and member of the Australian Catholic Council of Pastoral Research. 

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