BOSTON – Church on Sundays was a habit for Frank Gaul growing up Roman Catholic in the coastal Massachusetts town of Hingham in the 1980s. Now, it's Mass on holidays, at most.
The distractions of college life first interrupted Gaul's regular Mass attendance. Then came uncertainty about why he was going in the first place, a marriage to a non-Catholic and leeriness about trusting his young children to a church in which so many youths have been hurt.
"Having to go some place to pay homage to God every Sunday doesn't mean you're a good Catholic, or a bad Catholic, or whatever," said Gaul, a Boston equities trader. "I don't think you're going to die and go to heaven and hear, 'Frank, you didn't go to church for 15 years."'
Fewer than one in five Catholics who live in the Boston Archdiocese regularly attend Mass at a parish, according to church statistics. The archdiocese estimated its Catholic population at about 1.85 million in 2005, but Mass attendance was just 319,559 (17.3 percent), according to numbers from the archdiocese.
While attendance has dipped from around 20 percent prior to the clergy sex abuse crisis, which centered in the Boston Archdiocese, experts see the numbers as part of a wider trend -- a de-emphasis on Mass as a critical part of Catholic living.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley said Thursday that lower Mass attendance was "certainly a concern."
"The Eucharist is the summit of our faith as followers of Christ," he said.
O'Malley stresses evangelization during pastoral visits to parishes, said Kevin Shea, a spokesman for the archdiocese. A recent financial audit by the archdiocese included a recovery plan that emphasizes serving Catholics at the parish level, from Mass itself to adult and youth spiritual growth programs.
Church officials also hope that by opening up about finances and settling hundreds of abuse lawsuits, the archdiocese will regain some credibility among lapsed Catholics.
Shea noted that the Mass attendance figure doesn't include the significant numbers who attend weekly Mass at chapels, college campuses, hospitals and other non-parish settings. "It's indisputable that more go to Mass than are reflected in that Mass (attendance) number," he said.
A Mass attendance rate below 20 percent in Boston predates the clergy sex abuse scandal, which broke in 2002. In 1996, the rate was about 19.6 percent, then bottomed out at about 15 percent the year of the scandal, according to church numbers.
And Boston's current attendance statistics are comparable to other major dioceses.
In Chicago, for instance, the attendance rate was 21.5 percent in 2004. In Milwaukee, it was 29.1 percent last year. Newark, New Jersey, which counts more than 1.3 million Catholics, had a nearly identical Mass attendance rate to Boston, at 17.1 percent in 2005.
The percentages are well below telephone poll numbers that put weekly Mass attendance at 33 percent. But that number is probably inflated because people tend to exaggerate things such as church attendance when questioned for polls, said Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
In the 19th century, Mass attendance around the country was about 50 percent, and could have even approached 70 percent during the 1950s, said Jay Dolan, a University of Notre Dame historian who has studied Mass attendance.
The decline can be traced in part to the church's decreased emphasis on Mass attendance, said James Davidson, a Purdue University sociologist. Where people once worried about going to hell if they missed Mass, "priests in parishes no longer chastise people for not going the way they used to," Davidson said. Davidson also cited shifts in Catholic teachings that emphasize God's loving nature, not his judgment.
"Catholics tend to go when they want," he said. "God forgives."
The Rev. Bernard McLaughlin, pastor at St. Gerard Majella Church in Canton, Massachusetts, said his church, has a band that plays contemporary worship songs to attract younger people, and he avoids the heavy-handed pronouncements from the pulpit that he says turn off today's Catholics.
The faith itself remains the church's best selling point, McLaughlin said.
"I obviously believe very strongly Jesus is God and what he says is the truth," he said. "I think a lot of people still believe that. It's the institution they don't like."