Francis effect? Wait till next year

Written by Peter Smith on .

ocd 2014The annual Catholic statistics are in -- but only for the year 2012. So we still don't know if there's a "Francis effect," according to Mark Gray at research central for all things Catholic in this country -- the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

He reviews the latest data in "The Official Catholic Directory Anno Domini 2014," which also landed on my desk with a thud in recent days. (The book may be sturdier.) It includes comprehensive stats on membership, sacramental participation and other spiritual vital signs, submitted by parishes in 2013, when Francis was elected pope amid much anecdotage about his populist manner prompting people to return to church after long absences. But the stats submitted by parishes are from 2012, in the last days of the Benedict XVI era.

But what can we learn from these stats?

In Pittsburgh, most of these numbers are flat or down from the 2013 report. Numbers of Catholics (634,910), infant baptisms (4,818) and confirmations (3,005) are about equal to the year before. But significant declines happened in first communions (5,442, down 10 percent) and church marriages (1,786, down 7 percent), and given the relatively elderly population overall, it's notable that there were 2 percent fewer church funerals (7,453) than the year before. 

Such numbers are hardly surprising for an older, urban diocese in the North or Midwest.

Statistician Gray, taking the national look, says church growth in the Sunbelt, particularly fueled by immigration, has boosted Catholic numbers since the year 2000. The ranks of Catholics overall are up nationally whether measured by parish registration, self-identification or even weekly Mass attendance, which is up by 2.6 million this century.

At the same time, other sacramental participation from birth to death is declining -- baptisms, marriage, etc. Partly, Mr. Gray writes, that could have to do with Catholic immigrants arriving having experienced some sacraments in their homelands.

Elementary Catholic school enrollment, historically a prime force in forming young Catholics, is down, although Catholic college enrollment is soaring. 

Also, numbers are up for men studying for and being ordained to the priesthood -- just not nearly enough to make up for the departures of older priests to death and retirement.

Deacons and lay ministers are increasing, while religious brothers and sisters are declining.

This good news, bad news mix is a national phenomenon. Locally, virtually all numbers are down from early this century.

By the time Francis shows up in Philadelphia next year, as is expected, we'll know whether his early papacy had any immediate effect -- and by that time we'll be wondering whether it's had an enduring effect. But as we close the books on the Benedict era, it's worth remembering that even a charismatic pope can't overcome vast demographic forces such as birthrates and immigration.


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