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Have we returned to Mass? Does Remote Attendance Count? 5 Steps for Parishes

The March 17 Aleteia newsletter headline trumpets, “Catholics in US Return to Pre-pandemic form, slowly but surely”. A recent CARA study indicates that attendance for 2024 Ash Wednesday services is higher than it was in 2020 after steep declines during COVID-19. Most of those who watched televised or streamed Masses have returned in person for significant observances, with over 50% of self-identified Catholics attending. This is not yet true for “regular” weekly Mass. Another study by the Diocese of Green Bay details why some parishes increased Mass attendance even during Covid.

Another report on worship attendance from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research provides a look at both in-person and “in-person and virtual” attendance (labeled as hybrid attendance). While in-person attendance has increased, the study indicates that attendance will continue to be both in-person and “hybrid.”  

This reality is a challenging consideration for Catholic parishes. During this time of Eucharistic Revival, we are focused on the Real Presence and the sacrament of the Eucharist, which must be experienced in person. Catholic leaders were relatively open to remote Mass attendance, but more recent comments from US Bishops reiterate that remote Mass attendance does not meet our obligation as faithful Catholics. 

Seems like a big dilemma! We want our parishes to cast a net that provides opportunities to know us and develop relationships with us. The reality is that the introduction very often is through some digital contact. A key is how we nurture that introduction to lead to an authentic relationship with Christ and the parish community. Rather than ignore the important technology trend, our parish leaders should take advantage of the opportunity to foster a deeper relationship with remote attendees. 

Here are some steps parishes can take:

  1. Start with strong parishioner relationships. Does your parish maintain contact with parishioners throughout the week focused on faith, leading them into Sunday with meditations on upcoming readings? Reflections from the pastor?
  2. Make sure you have good parishioner data.  Do you have up-to-date contact information for all your parishioners? 
  3. Capture visitor contact information. Does your parish have an intentional way to invite visitors to share their email or phone number? A welcome desk? Text for a gift?  Devotionals?
  4. Make sure your Mass experience is inspiring. Regardless of the particular style of Mass, the quality of the liturgy, homily, and music all make a difference.  A recent updated ACS Technologies American Beliefs study indicates that there is not one  particular celebration style that is preferred, ranging from highly traditional to highly contemporary.
  5. Set expectations for your online audience. Welcome them online and be grateful they are connected to your community. If you are not already doing so, provide the words to the prayer for spiritual communion as part of the streaming service. Also, remind viewers that as Catholics we are obligated to attend Sunday Mass in person and invite them to come (providing times for vigil and Sunday Masses).

It’s good news that parishioners are returning on their own. Now is the time to harness the spark of our Eucharistic revival to strengthen your parish community and turn your ministry outward in invitation to those who are seeking an authentic relationship with Christ and the Church.

Terry Poplava 

Terry Poplava serves as General Manager, ACST Catholic. As a cradle Catholic, his faith was lukewarm until he was confronted by the intense challenge and commitment he heard in the message about Stewardship. “What do I own and what owns me?” which led him to executive roles at Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic Leadership Institute before his current focus on serving the Catholic Church at ACS Technologies. Terry has extensive experience working with churches across the U.S., supporting their planning, stewardship, and engagement efforts