Christmas 2023: Unusual back-to-back Mass schedule could hurt parishes’ collections this year


Will Catholic parishioners go to Mass twice in the coming days as they’re supposed to, once for Sunday and a second time for Christmas? Parish coffers could take a hit if they don’t.

“The fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve. How many people are going to go to Mass both days? And how much will they give?” said Monsignor Robert Panke, pastor of St. John Neumann Catholic Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

At stake is a sizable portion of the money need to pay their staffs and keep the lights and heat on.

“The Christmas collections are typically three times the normal Sunday collection. It’s the biggest collection of the year,” said Matthew Manion, a professor at Villanova University who studies church management. “Particularly parishes that go week to week, any time you lose a Sunday is difficult.”

Some parishioners give online at regular intervals, which many pastors prefer because it’s steady and more reliable and helps with long-term planning. But the pocket cash and checks that many pew-sitters put in the basket on weekends are also important.

“For some parishes, they need every week because they need to make payroll, or they need to pay for heat, and to lose one Sunday is a lot,” Panke said.

Why two Masses?

Dec. 25 is a solemnity that is always a holy day of obligation — meaning Catholics are obliged to go to Mass either on the day or the eve of the day (defined as 4 p.m. or later the day before).

But every Sunday is “the primordial holy day of obligation,” as canon 1246 in the Church’s Code of Canon Law puts it.

So if Dec. 24 falls on a Sunday and Dec. 25 on Monday, it means back-to-back holy days of obligation.

The concern this year is that some people will opt to attend their regular Sunday Mass, or skip that Mass and go on Christmas Day. Either way, it means one fewer collection for their parish.

To recap: Catholics this weekend are supposed to go to Mass on both of the following:

• 4 p.m. or later on Saturday, Dec. 23, or before 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 24.

• 4 p.m. or later on Sunday, Dec. 24, or sometime on Sunday, Dec. 25.

Since few churches have afternoon Masses on Christmas Day, in most places that means going to Mass on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning and then going again either Sunday afternoon or Monday morning.

It’s A Good Thing

Monsignor Panke is trying to emphasize that this scheduling is a good thing spiritually.

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“You’re blessed. You get to go to Mass twice this weekend,” Panke has been telling parishioners.

He has also reminded them that the money taken in at each Mass matters.

“The most important thing that we want to do, though, is to get people to two Masses this weekend. It’s important,” Panke said. “The collection is certainly secondary, but not unimportant, because it helps with the mission of evangelizing and preaching the Gospel.”

Fewer donors, but giving more

Manion conducted a recently published study of five years of collections at nearly 1,000 Catholic parishes that found that the number of donors fell about 26% during the coronavirus shutdowns. The figure increased after churches reopened but even now is about 16% less than it was pre-virus, the study found.

On the flip side, though, per-person donations went up about 24% during the first 12 weeks of the coronavirus shutdowns, and that elevated average has remained fairly steady since.

“So there’s fewer people but the ones who are giving are giving significantly more,” Manion said. “So people became more generous during COVID and maintained that generosity after COVID.”

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The initial bump may have come about because stocks remained high, so people with means did fairly well, while many less wealthy people were able to give more because they got coronavirus stimulus checks from the government.

Once parishioners started giving more, they got used to it, along the lines of what economists who study price increases call the “ratchet effect.”

“Once people start giving at a certain level, they stay there,” Manion said. “I think people realized they could afford to give more than they had been, and so they kept doing it. That tends to be what happens when people embrace a stewardship mentality. They realize that God will not be outdone in generosity.”

Whatever happens this weekend with collections, Manion encourages pastors to publish the results and put them in the context of how the parish is doing.

“When people have good information about the financial health of their parish, they tend to be more generous,” Manion said. “I think the worst thing would be to not communicate the information — the good or the bad. Because in an information vacuum, people can’t help.”

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