Traditional Catholic parishes grow even as US Catholicism declines
by Jeffrey Cimmino | November 02, 2019 12:00 AM
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Traditional Catholic parishes run by one society of priests are growing in the United States, defying the trend of decline in the broader American church over previous decades.
Over the past year, parishes run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a society of priests dedicated to celebrating the traditional Latin form of the Catholic liturgy, have reported large increases in Sunday Mass attendance. The traditional liturgy that draws attendees is the form of the Mass celebrated before the reforms instituted at the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of the church’s bishops in the 1960s.
In Los Angeles, the fraternity did not have their own church until 2018, but Mass attendance over the past year doubled from 250 per Sunday to 500. The parish’s pastor, Fr. James Fryar, commented for the fraternity’s website that, after his parish added a fourth Mass on Sunday, “another 200 people came.”
The Naples, Florida, parish has been around for less than two years, but close to 400 people attend every Sunday, an increase of 20% from 2018. The pastor, Fr. James Romanoski, told the Washington Examiner the parish has been “averaging a new household — sometimes a family, sometimes an individual — every week” for over a year.
Romanoski said people are attracted to the liturgy and the strong community, which includes groups for men and women, young and old alike, and monthly potlucks.
“It’s a great place for their kids, the priests are very involved with all the people, and the people themselves can gel like a family,” said Romanoski.
Romanoski added that people often join from other parishes, and even daily Masses get an average of about 50 parishioners in attendance.
One Naples parishioner, Greg Colker, was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism but first attended a “standard” American Catholic parish, “not at all particularly traditional, not at all particularly liberal,” he told the Washington Examiner.
The traditional liturgy proved transformative for him, and he described it as “something that has formed from the heart of the church to form us into better people.” He added, “There’s this big lie that the traditional stuff is legalistic and rigid. I have found it to be anything but. I have found the teaching to be clear and useful.”
Sunday Mass attendance at the fraternity’s parish in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho increased by about 29% in the past two years, while the parish in Atlanta has grown by 30% in the last year.
It is difficult to gauge the total number of Catholics affiliated with the fraternity’s parishes or who regularly attend traditional liturgies, as neither the church nor the fraternity provide public information about attendance. The popularity of the fraternity among American Catholics can be approximated through other factors, including priestly ordinations and the society’s presence in dioceses around the country.
The fraternity has witnessed a steady increase in the number of priests in the society since its founding in 1988, and ordinations continue to grow. Between 2007 and 2012, an average of 10 seminarians were ordained priests each year. Between 2013 and 2018, that number has jumped to an average of almost 15 per year. Annual reports provided to the Washington Examiner by the society show the number of the fraternity’s personal parishes has tripled from 11 to 33 in the U.S. since 2008. A personal parish is a Catholic community recognized by bishops based on a special feature of the group, such as commitment to celebrating the Latin liturgy, rather than geographical location.
Social media pages offer a less conventional way of gauging interest in traditional Catholicism, with humorous pages such as TradCatholic Memes and Traditional Catholic Memes for Working Class Teens garnering 12,000 and 9,000 likes, respectively. Another page, The Beauty of Catholicism, which frequently posts images of the traditional liturgy, has almost 130,000 likes.
The growth of FSSP parishes comes amid decades of decline in the Catholic Church in the U.S., which has been marred by sexual abuse scandals. Since 1970, the number of priests in the U.S. has declined by about 38% to 36,580 in 2018.
In absolute terms, the Catholic population has grown from 54.1 million in 1970 to 76.3 million in 2018, although that is down from a high of 81.2 million in 2005. In relative terms, however, the Catholic population has declined as a share of the overall U.S. population over the past decade, from 24% in 2007 to 20% in 2019. The number of people identifying as former Catholics has skyrocketed from 1.8 million in 1975 to 26.1 million in 2018.
Former Catholics tend to leave the church at a young age, with one survey showing almost 80% of erstwhile Catholics abandon the faith before age 23. About half of millennials, those born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s, who were raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic.
Two surveys of former Catholics from the past decade found people who left usually did so because they slowly lost interest in religion, stopped believing the church’s teachings, and did not have their spiritual needs met.
A survey from 2018 found weekly Mass attendance across U.S. parishes declined 6 percentage points from 2005 to 2017. An average of 39% of American Catholics attended Mass weekly from 2014-2017, whereas weekly Mass attendance was at 75% in 1955.
Colker wondered whether less traditional Catholicism could account for the decline in faith.
“I think the jury is still out on whether or not more modern forms of Catholicism are doing a good job at transmitting the faith,” said Colker.