Australian Mass attendance dropped during pandemic restrictions, but young adults show up

shutterstock 1037552143 City skyline in Sydney, Australia. | Irina Sokolovskaya/Shutterstock

A new report by the Catholic Church in Australia shows a drop in Mass attendance in 2021, a year heavily affected by pandemic restrictions. However, the report also highlights an unexpected increase in young adult participation, despite an overall decline by 33% from 2016 to 2021.

Australia’s National Centre for Pastoral Research (NCPR) conducted the 2021 National Count of Attendance, revealing that an average of 417,300 people attended Mass each weekend, down from 623,300 in 2016. 

In 2021, the average number of Catholics at Mass represented just 8.2% of the Catholic population in Australia amid varying COVID-19 restrictions across states.

The report’s authors note that “many parishes are experiencing a new normal due to the irreversible consequences of the global pandemic.”

Rising Mass attendance among youth

Despite the downturn in attendance, the report noted a significant rise in numbers among young adults aged 18–29. This cohort, which had been declining between 2006 and 2016, showed a numerical increase of 4,000 churchgoers between 2016 and 2021, the Catholic Leader noted. 

“The report states that the proportion of attenders aged 18–29 increased from 6.7% in 2016 to 11.8% in 2021,” reflecting a potential shift in engagement among younger Catholics.

“This increase in young adult participation is encouraging and suggests a renewed interest in religious practices among younger generations.”

The demographic breakdown also showed that women made up 56% of Mass attendees in 2021, down slightly from 62% in 2016. Older age groups continued to have a strong presence, with those aged 70 and above accounting for just over a quarter of the attendees.

Regional differences were notable, with the Archdiocese of Sydney and the Diocese of Darwin recording the highest attendance rates at 10.4%, while the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle — just 100 miles to the west of Sydney — had the lowest at 3.7%.

Migrant communities significantly impacted these figures. For instance, the Syro-Malabar Eparchy saw a 90% increase in attendance, indicative of the vibrant and growing immigrant Catholic population in Australia.

“The strong representation of Catholics from non-English-speaking countries has helped stem the overall decline in attendance,” the report highlights.

Australia’s Catholic population, according to the 2021 census, stood at approximately 5.1 million, making up 20% of the total population. 

The Australian report also examined the role of online and broadcast Masses during the pandemic. More than 30,100 households watched the “Mass for You at Home” program on a typical weekend in May 2021. 

Researchers are now hoping to account in future studies for factors outside of a pandemic: “Changes in the demographics of the Catholic population, the presence or absence of immigrants, the attendance patterns of different age groups ... and other issues affecting the overall Catholic population in Australia also play a role.” 

During World Youth Day 2000, Pope Benedict XVI called on Catholics in the great “southern land of the Holy Spirit” to witness the faith: “Our hearts and minds are yearning for a vision of life where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion,” the pope said. 

“This is the work of the Holy Spirit! This is the hope held out by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to bear witness to this reality that you were created anew at baptism and strengthened through the gifts of the Spirit at confirmation. Let this be the message that you bring from Sydney to the world!”

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