September 13, 2012
On May 16, 1959, the
Saturday Evening Post printed on its front cover a Norman Rockwell illustration entitled “Sunday Morning.” Depicted were a mother and her three children. All were properly dressed and on the way to church. Seated in the center of the picture was the father, still in his pajamas and bathrobe, reading the morning newspapers. Already in the 1950s, there was concern about a decline in attendance at religious services.
Six years before,
Time Magazine (November 9, 1953) had published the article “Religion: Good and Great.” It reported that Catholic, Protestant and Jewish lay people were joining together to promote attendance at church or synagogue. They advertised in the press, on the air, and on billboards across the nation. They made a special effort to get families to attend together.
At that time, in the keynote address for those gathered for the fifth
Religion in American Life Campaign, President Eisenhower commented on this project. He said, “By strengthening religious institutions, the Committee on Religion in American Life is helping to keep America good.”
Since then, the religious landscape in America has changed. Now we are facing a serious attempt to marginalize religion from the public forum and to limit religious freedom to the freedom of worship. But more disturbing than the efforts from
outside the faith community is the increasing apathy of those
within the faith community. Church attendance at Sunday worship is less and less a priority. How many of our young children are dropped off for catechetical instruction on Sunday morning by parents who do not attend Mass and who see no reason why their children should either.
Rockwell’s “Sunday Morning” illustration and the
Religion in American Life Campaign to get people to church on Sundays came at a time when church attendance was significantly higher than it is at present. In the 50s, at least 75% of Catholics of all ages attended Mass regularly. But, by the mid-60s, only 70% of adult Catholics and only 56% of Catholics between the ages of 20-29 were attending Sunday Mass regularly.
It is no secret that church attendance has fallen. Both the faithful who attend Mass regularly and the casual observer on the outside have noticed this. Today according to the most recent statistics, only 24% of Catholics attend Mass every Sunday, with fewer and fewer young adults among them.
Compared to Western Europe, this is an amazingly high percentage. In France, 76% of the population consider themselves Catholic. Yet, only 12% say that they go to church on Sunday. In cities such as Paris, Sunday Mass attendance has dropped as low as 5%. In Spain, 74% of the population is Catholic. Yet only 13% attend Sunday Mass regularly. In Italy, where 97% of the population claims to be Catholic, church attendance has fallen to about 15%.
Church attendance is certainly an indicator of religious practice and the strength of faith in an individual and in a people. The drastic drop in church attendance in Europe should not surprise us. So much has faith declined in Europe that the preamble of a new constitution for the European Union omits any mention of Christianity or even God among the cultural forces that shaped Europe.
Europe has become secularized. America is different. The recent Health and Human Resources ruling requiring all institutions to provide abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraceptives in their healthcare coverage has ignited a fierce battle. At stake is the very role of religion in the public forum. Catholic and non-Catholic institutions have filed lawsuits in federal courts against the ruling. This is proof enough that religion continues to play an important role in shaping America. The uproar over the omission of the mention of God in the original platform of the recent Democratic convention and the call to insert it show that religion continues to be a vital issue for Americans.
But what about the greying and diminishing congregations at Sunday Mass? Why has this happened? Is the decline inevitable? Will America go the way of Europe?
To be continued…..