The Catholic Church in Belgium reported Wednesday a rise in Mass attendance in 2019 compared to the previous year. 

The figures, issued Nov. 18, showed that 241,029 people attended Mass on the third Sunday of October in 2019, an increase of 2,101 on the same Sunday in 2018.

But despite the modest rise, the number of Mass-goers is well below the 2016 total of 286,000.

The new figures also showed that significantly more Belgians attended Mass at Christmas in 2019 than in 2018. The report said that 551,134 people went to either Midnight Mass or a Christmas Day Mass last year, compared to 509,000 in 2018.

These increases were among the bright spots in an annual report on the Church's activities in 2019. The 116-page publication found that baptisms, First Communions and confirmations all declined, as did weddings and funerals. 

The number of baptisms fell to 42,051 in 2019, compared to 44,850 in 2018. 

There were only 5,971 marriages in Belgian Catholic churches in 2019, down from 6,765 in 2018.

The report also said that more than half of Belgium's 2,167 diocesan priests were over 75 years of age.

Although the majority of Belgium's 11.5 million population are baptized Catholics, Sunday Mass attendance is below 7%.

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But in August, the Belgian Church reported a significant rise in adult baptisms in 2020.

CathoBel, the website of the Catholic Church in Belgium, said that 305 adults would be baptized this year, an increase of 61 compared to 2019. 

The number of adult baptisms has grown steadily from 143 in 2010, to 180 in 2015, to more than 300 in 2020.

Belgium is among the European countries to have suffered most from the coronavirus outbreak. In March, the Church was forced to suspend public Masses, though churches remained opened for public prayer.

In an introduction to Wednesday's report, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel wrote: "The coronavirus epidemic has taken a toll on our society. We have experienced our fragility within our parish communities. We don't have mastery over everything. Many certainties have been and are still being shattered."

De Kesel, the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and president of the Belgian bishops' conference, continued: "We had a foretaste in the absence of celebration during Holy Week. There was also, for a while, the absence of Mass, as well as funerals celebrated without family members and friends." 

"As for Communions and confirmations, they were simply postponed. For many this was a real deprivation. This shows the social importance of the Church. This also testifies to the existential significance that it has for many people."

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