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Largest In-Pew Study of Catholics: Most Rate Parishes Good or Excellent

Mass Photo for Cara Study

Members of the Georgetown community gather for Mass.

March 28, 2013 – A large majority of American Catholic parishioners rate their experience in church “good” or “excellent,” according to a recent report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a nonprofit affiliated with Georgetown.

The Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, involved the collaboration of five Catholic national ministerial organizations and commissioned CARA to conduct a series of surveys.

“The project was designed to understand how Catholics are reacting to and dealing with changes in the Roman Catholic Church, such as dioceses reorganizing in response to declining numbers of priests,” says CARA researcher Mark M. Gray, who authored the report with CARA’s Mary L. Gautier and Melissa A. Cidade.

“In the absence of enough priests to staff parishes, they may close and merge parishes, assign priests to multiple parishes, invite priests from other countries to serve here or entrust the pastoral care of a parish to a deacon or lay person," he says. "The study examines how Catholics react to these new and different emergent realities.”

“Views from the Pews: Parishioner Evaluations of Parish Life in the United States,” will be sent out to Roman Catholic Church leaders, Gray says, and the data already is already being used in academic and popular press publications.

Majority Find Excellence

More than 14,000 interviews were conducted for the study in 2011 and 2012, followed by nearly 400,000 additional interviews by CARA.

Fifty-eight percent of parishioners surveyed in their pews rated their overall satisfaction with their parishes “excellent,” with 94 percent rating them “good.”

“This study is based on the largest known sample of Catholics surveyed in their pews during Mass in recent years,” Gray says. “We were pleasantly surprised to find that parishioners were so likely to rate their overall satisfaction as excellent or good with their parish.”

Shopping Around

But he says the study also indicates that Catholics are increasingly shopping around for a parish that meets their needs.

“Most end up finding a place that they like,” Gray notes. “At the same time that may mean they are dissatisfied with their local territorial parish. I think there is and should continue to be a concern about why so many parishioners report the need to drive by a parish closer to their home to find one that they are very satisfied with.”

Gray says there are many stereotypes about who is in the pews in Catholic parishes, and that the study breaks them.

Surprise, Surprise

“I think we were surprised to find about one in ten were reverts – people who had left the [the Roman Catholic] Church and come back,” he explains.

The study also revealed that the largest group of Catholics attending church are from the Post-Vatican II Generation, also known as Gen-X, or those born between 1961 and 1981.

“I think many assume there are more older people in the pews,” Gray says. “It was also surprising to see that fewer Hispanic parishioners are in the pews than expected, given the size of this group in the self-identified Catholic population.”

“We found that Hispanics are less likely than others to attend Mass weekly,” he adds. “This was not expected.”

Welcoming Spirit

Also revealed in the study is what attracts Catholics to the parishes they attend.

Highest rated are “Its open, welcoming spirit,” followed by “The quality of the liturgy,” followed by “The quality of the preaching.”

Also rated relatively high were “The sense of belonging you feel here” and “The quality of the music.”

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