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Canada’s Catholics: A Flourishing Church in Need of Flourishing Parishes

Catholics are readily Canada’s largest religious group, numbering some 13 million people. That works out to about 40% of the Canadian population, compared to around 25% for Protestants and 10% for Other Major Faiths, led by Muslims at 3%. The balance of the population – almost 25% – indicate that they have no religion.

Yet, as the 21st century began, Catholic parishes in Canada were not particularly flourishing. According to those most actively involved, 25% of their congregations had been growing in recent years. But some 40% reported that their groups had been declining, while the remaining 35% indicated that things had remained about the same. Outside Quebec, the three category breakdowns were about one-third, one-third, and one-third. In Quebec, only 10% of active respondents reported that their congregations had been growing, although another 30% said the numbers were stable. Close to 60%, however, acknowledged that their groups had been getting smaller.

There are signs that things are looking up, especially outside Quebec. As of 2015, the new numerical norm for Catholic parishes is stability and growth (75%) rather than decline. And in Quebec, the decline level of 60% has fallen to about 35%, with stability now at 55%. Growth is still largely elusive, but nonetheless is being realized in about 1 in 10 parish instances.

A major reason for the recent rise in Catholic parish growth and stability is immigration. As most readers know, there has been a global explosion in the growth of religion, led by Christianity and Islam. According to the reputable Pew Research Forum, Christians and Muslims will each number some 3 billion people by 2050 – roughly twice their 1950 totals. That world-wide expansion is already having a profound impact on religion in Canada as newcomers arrive from elsewhere. Of major importance, Statistics Canada tells us that, in the next several decades, immigration figures will reach unprecedented levels as Canada attempts to sustain its population size in the face of an insufficient level of natural increase.

In the process, immigration is almost single-handedly transforming the religious situation in Canada. So much for the idea that religion’s days were numbered. In the last decade alone, new arrivals included a whopping 500,000 Catholics, along with some 400,000 Muslims and about 200,000 people with varied “Christian” ties. Further illustrating the diverse religious appetites of immigrants, about 450,000 of those who came arrived with “No Religion.”

The large infusion of Catholics from other countries is having a significant impact on parishes. Of considerable importance, the new arrivals – led by Filipinos – are typically more devout and more involved than their Canadian-born counterparts. While 25% of Catholics born in Canada are attending services at least once a month, the figure for those born outside Canada is a stunning 55%.

As a result, Catholic parish numbers and religious commitment are both on the rise. And parishes and Dioceses are becoming more culturally diverse, with that diversity often extending to theological and social attitudes and practices as well.

In short, adjustment issues notwithstanding – including the heightened need for human and financial resources – Catholic parishes and Dioceses in Canada are becoming more robust and healthy. In places like Vancouver, Surrey, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Markham, and Montreal, large Asian and multicultural parishes are thriving. In Toronto alone, mass is celebrated in some 40 languages every Sunday in 240 parishes, and one new megachurch with seating for more than 1,000 people has been established every year for the last fifteen years.

Still, large numbers of Catholics have minimal involvement with parishes. Since the 1960s, nation Catholic weekly attendance has dropped from around 80% to 20% – and to less than 10% in Quebec. Nevertheless, some 80% of Catholics everywhere in Canada maintain that they attend mass at least occasionally. At Christmas, for example, attendance levels rise to about 50%, reaching around 35% in Quebec and 65% elsewhere.

Yet, the fact that more people – especially Canadian-born Catholics – are not actively involved suggests that many parishes could use considerable help in becoming flourishing congregations. As of 2015, Angus Reid and I found that 30% of Catholics who currently are attending services less than once a month indicate that they would be open to more involvement if they “found it worthwhile.” The levels are 47% outside Quebec, and a much-lower, 15% in Quebec. People tell us they are typically looking to have various spiritual, personal, and relational needs addressed.

Clearly all of us give our time and resources to those things which enhance our lives and the lives of those we care about most. It’s noteworthy that Catholics who are involved in their parishes speak of the spiritual and personal enrichment that such participation brings. If less-involved Catholics can likewise find that greater ties with parishes tangibly contributes to their lives, additional numbers can be expected to want to have more to do with parishes and the Church more generally. Currently, however, most are not experiencing that connection, especially in Quebec.

Hopefully one of the priorities of The Flourishing Churches Institute will be to actively engage Catholics. They need all the help they can get in creating flourishing parishes that can be responsive to the thousands of people who will be arriving in Canada over the next few decades – as well as ministering well to the millions of Catholics who need to find significance in parish life.

The need and the opportunity are obvious.

*Reginald W. Bibby holds the Board of Governors Research Chair in Sociology at the University of Lethbridge. His latest book is Canada’s Catholics: Vitality and Hope in a New Era (Toronto: Novalis, 2016), co-authored with Angus Reid.

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