Beliefs Opinion

COMMENTARY: The”October count”of Mass attendance is misleading indicator

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ I am always surprised at the enthusiasm with which many priests will tell you that 75 percent of Roman Catholics do not go to Mass. While the adverb is rarely added, the implication is they NEVER go to church.

This conclusion is based on the so-called October Count, going on now in most Catholic parishes throughout the country, in which church officials do a nose-count of Mass attendance.

Priests seem to like the October Count because they think somehow it places the blame on the laity _ and not on bad homilies or poor liturgy _ for low levels of attendance at the Eucharist.

In fact, the October Count is bad, if inexpensive, social science even if it not totally useless as a general trend indicator. Does the October Count go up or down, for example, when a new pastor is appointed to a parish?

But as a basis for a judgment about the devotion of Catholics it is generally useless and dangerously deceptive, even if it perversely makes many priests feel good.

There are a number of weaknesses in this bargain basement sociology:

First, it assumes the same people are in church every Sunday in October, exactly the same 25 percent of the population of a parish and of a diocese. In fact, as should be obvious, there are notable shifts in the population in church from Sunday to Sunday.

If many devout Catholics now tend to go to church a couple of times a month rather than every week _ and there is ample evidence they do _ then there will be major shifts in who is present from Sunday to Sunday.

Secondly, the October Count leaves out those who might not be in the parish on a given Sunday _ those away at college, those who may be visiting children who are away at college, those off on football weekends or those who are traveling on business, to name some examples. And, of course, those who have gone off to some other parish where there is good preaching and good liturgy.

Such folks, it will be said, are the more affluent. But it is precisely the upper middle class which is most likely to go to church and is also the largest segment of the Catholic population.

Moreover, it leaves out those who have legitimate excuses _ the sick, the infirm, the elderly, those overwhelmed with children, the temporarily harassed. How large a proportion of the Catholic population would fit into these categories? The October Count will never answer that question.

Additionally, the math system used is variable.

Thus, Mary Beth Celio, the director of planning for the Archdiocese of Seattle, pointed out in a recent letter to the lay-edited, independent magazine Commonweal that the Archdiocese of Seattle’s October Count could produce a Mass attendance rate of 20 percent if it included infants and those who claimed to be Catholic but did not affiliate with any parish; 33 percent if baptisms and funerals were used to estimate Catholic population; and 42 percent if the denominator was based on the number of registered parishioners, assuming priests’ estimates of registered parishioners are accurate.

Finally, the October Count is a factoid _ a bit of information which gives no hint of the nature of the problem such as it may be. It does not reveal who does not attend regularly, why they do not attend, and what might attract them back into regular church attendance.

My own research shows there is a life cycle effect _ young people are much less likely to attend than their parents, but they catch up as they grow older. Moreover, sex and authority are a problem for many marginal Catholics. However, these are at most hints of an explanation.

Serious research rather than cheap and dirty nose counts are necessary if one seriously wants to increase the level of regular church attendance.

But from the enthusiasm with which many priests talk about the bad news of the October Count, I don’t think they want to ask serious questions about how they may have failed their people.