The notion that the number of people actively participating in the Catholic faith in Rhode Island has been declining has been observed for some time now, but recently the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence released precise numbers to verify that fact.
In a “pastoral profile” assembled by the Diocese released earlier this month, data reveals that everything from the overall number of parishioners, the number of masses and attendance at masses to the number of priests in the state have all sharply declined since 2000.
What the numbers show is a snapshot is a widespread departure from traditional Catholic practice in Rhode Island, which the Pew Research Center still identifies as the most Catholic-dense population in the country, with 43 percent in the state identifying as followers of the faith.
In his address attached to the report, Bishop Thomas Tobin declared, “The inescapable conclusion from reviewing the report is that the Diocese of Providence is experiencing a quantitative decline,” and indicated “the Diocese must continue making the structural adjustments we have already begun in responding to the new realities in which we are living. These changes will include clergy assignments, parish configurations, Mass schedules, and educational resources.”
“Every member of the Church should expect to be affected by these changes,” Tobin continues. “Second is that we need to renew our efforts at evangelization – with boldness and creativity – to welcome new members into our Church, to reach out to those who have fallen away, and to nourish and strengthen the faith of the many who are still with us.”
To highlight some of the data, while the state’s population has risen about 7 percent from 987,429 in 2000 to 1,057,315 in 2018, the number of Catholic parishioners has shrunk from about 525,181 in 2000 to 321,315 in 2018 – a decline of about 39 percent over that span. This coincides with a 21 percent decrease in the number of masses observed (609 in 2000 to 482 in 2018), likely an adjustment reacting to a significant 57 percent decrease in mass attendance (187,708 in 2000 versus 79,936 in 2018).
The number of priests in Rhode Island has also declined from 216 in 2000 to just 134 in 2018 (a 38 percent decrease). Of those 134 priests, more than half (77) are aged 60 or older, and 16 percent of the priests will be 70 years old or older in 2019. There are 22 priests under 40 years of age, and 13 seminarians actively studying for the priesthood, per the report.
Interestingly, the report revealed that 37 priests in Rhode Island (about a quarter of them) are responsible for more than one assignment within the diocese.
This can be seen locally in Warwick, where nearly all Catholic parishes have engaged in the practice of “yoking” – where two churches remain independent with separate congregations, but pool resources and share a single priest. As of this writing, St. Benedict and St. Kevin, St. Catherine and St. Francis and, most recently, St. Timothy and St. Rita have all yoked with one another. St. Rose of Lima and St. Clement used to be independent parishes, but merged to form St. Rose and Clement in 1997. St. Peter and St. Gregory the Great remain independent without having yoked at this time.
St. William Church, serving the Norwood neighborhood, closed in April of 2017.
Fr. Robert Marciano is one of those priests with multiple assignments. He is the pastor for St. Benedict and St. Kevin, which began yoking in 2017. He also serves as the president for Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick. Marciano believes that the numbers reveal a cultural shift that indicate younger generations are not joining organizations in general, not just churches.
“That’s a cultural shift. The Elks and the Masons are experiencing it as well,” he said. “This particular generation is not joiners, and organized religion is something they just don’t seem to participate in.”
Marciano opined that the effect of technology – and how it creates virtual spaces for modern youths to congregate – cannot be ignored as a possible cause for the dwindling numbers within Catholic churches.
“I’ll be at a restaurant and I see four people at the table with their phones not talking to each other,” he said. “I think technology has contributed to that.”
While other congregations have seen diminishing parishioners, Marciano said the numbers at St. Benedict’s in particular were “strong” with full 10 a.m. masses being the norm. When asked if there was a “secret” to getting people enthusiastic about coming to church and participating in religion during a time of significant downturn elsewhere within the Diocese, his response was relatively straightforward.
“I think a priest, pastor or president should be hopeful, happy and the cheerleader of the organization,” he said. “My job is to highlight the good things that happen in all these places, and there’s so much good going on. So much good being done and so many lives being changed.”
The report from the Diocese touches upon the good things happening within the Catholic faith as well. For example, it cites that $3.35 million has been raised through donations since 2005 for the diocesan heating assistance program “Keep the Heat On,” which has helped 14,089 families stay warm.
It reports giving “hundreds” of men in addiction recovery a warm place to stay and food to eat at the Emmanuel House Homeless Shelter located in Providence. In the larger picture, the profile states that 103,315 people have been helped through other diocesan social service programs that bolster outreach, legal services, counseling, food pantries and soup kitchens.
It highlights that nearly $2 million in tuition assistance grants were provided to over 2,000 Catholic School students in 2018 alone, and that nearly 10,000 hospital and homebound visits were made by members of the clergy and parishes in 2018 as well.
Marciano said that as long as he does his job well, people will continue to show up for services at church, and that the work he does at Hendricken should continue to inspire the next generations to consider educational opportunities at the school.
“With a donation to Hendricken, it literally changes a boy’s life,” he said. “That’s great news and is something to shout about.”
Interestingly, according to the report a decline in Catholic education enrollment statewide has inordinately affected elementary students, but not high school enrollment to the same degree. There has been a 56 percent decline in elementary enrollment (from 13,541 in 2000 to 5,911 in 2018), but only an 11 percent decrease at Catholic high schools (from 5,440 in 2000 to 4,806 in 2018).
The most drastic decreases across the Catholic religion in Rhode Island have been seen in the numbers of ceremonial practices undertaken by those in the faith. Marriages, for example, have dropped by 67 percent, with only 681 Catholic marriages occurring in 2018 versus 2,056 occurring in 2000. Baptisms have fallen 63 percent from 6,274 in 2000 to 2,343 in 2018. The same can be said for those taking their First Communion, which dropped 63 percent from 6,363 in 2000 to just 2,345 in 2018.
Marciano, however, said he doesn’t worry too much about the numbers that have been released, as he is solely focused on doing the best job that he can through what he can control. Given the scandals that have rocked the foundation of the Catholic religion in recent times, Marciano said that faith – appropriately – is what has always helped the virtuous persevere in light of the darkness.
“Jesus sees the future. Let him worry about it. The church has had troubled times in the past, and there have always been great leaders who rose up in the past...God has always risen up to guide us through and come out on the other side stronger,” he said. “Europe has gone through it for decades, and now it’s our turn. We have strong Catholics here.”
Even as the numbers appear to be daunting and indicative of an overall religious decline in the state, Marciano hearkened back to the very beginning of the faith to make his point about resiliency.
“Our Lord had 12 [disciples] and he changed the world. I’m not really worried about the numbers,” he said.