CARA has a very interesting post showing the multiple ways of counting Catholics. It should be very helpful for thinking about the New Evangelization. See A Micro-scoping View of U.S. Catholic Populations at CARA’s blog, Nineteen Sixty-Four.

I wish I had had the USA Catholics per Parish data when I was on pastoral council. Below I have created a table from the CARA parish data to help think about parishes. The “average” parish has 3,277 persons in households registered in the parish. This is the easiest number to compare with your parish. There are likely an addition 911 unregistered people nearby who still identify as Catholic, and 1,264 who were once Catholic at some point in their life. So the parish’s total “Catholic” population is really 5,452.

Among the 3,277 persons in registered households, there are 1,225 who attend Mass less than once a month, another 1,047 that attend at least once a month but not every week, and finally 1,005 people who attend Mass every week. The group that is key to re-evangelizing the “whole” parish consists of 168 adults very involved in the parish outside of Mass. I have divided each of the cumulative circles by this number. For the total 5,452 Catholics, there are 32 Catholics per Involved Adult. For all the Catholics in households registered in the parish there are 20 Catholics per Involved adult.

Evangelization can be considered as strengthening and spreading both Catholic Culture (e.g. beliefs, values, practices) and Catholic Institutions (e.g. social networks).

With Andrew Greeley I believe religious culture works more like poetry (by inspiring and shaping our experience) than like prose (by systematically educating our minds). The good news is that Catholic culture is wonderfully rich, diverse and inspiring; the bad news is that one size fits all presentations of Catholicism tend to be boring rather than inspiring.


Concentric Circles Model*: USA Catholics Per Parish Data

Category of Catholic Numbers Cumulative Per Involved
Catholics at some point in life




Currently identifies as Catholic




In household registered with Parish




Attends Mass at least once a month




Attending Mass every week




Adults very involved outside Mass




Lay Ecclesial Ministers




* Assumes those who attend Mass are registered in parish, generally but not exactly true

At this time, strengthening social networks is more important than strengthening culture. People who have social networks (families, close friends and small groups) in a congregation are healthier, happier and more willing to give of their time, talent and treasure. Beliefs and values acquired from sitting alone in the pews or childhood education do not seem to confer many benefits. The good news is that social networks spread and maintain culture; the bad news is we can no longer rely on Catholic family and ethnic social networks to grow and maintain themselves. The parish today has to build and strengthen social networks of families, friends and small groups.

What does strengthening Catholic culture and Catholic social networks mean for the different concentric circles of the parish?

Cultural Catholics: They were Catholics at some point in their life but now no longer identify as Catholic. Bad news: They are unlikely to come back since many have become members of other churches. Good news: Today, people feel free to draw their religious culture from more than one denomination, and to participate in social networks of more than one denomination. Although many of these Cultural Catholics may have rejected certain aspects of Catholic teaching (birth control, abortion) they likely retain some Catholic beliefs, values, spiritualities, and practices. Evangelization strategy: make the richness and diversity of Catholic culture widely available to the public through parishes where non-Catholics can network with Catholics in small groups led by Involved Catholics.

Lukewarm Catholics not in Parish Network: These are people who identify as Catholics but are not in a registered household. What sociologists know about “lukewarm” people is that they are ripe for having a conversion experience if they find something that inspires their interest (religion as poetry) in a group that shares that same inspiration. Evangelization strategy: present many different inspiring aspects of Catholicism (beliefs, values, spiritualities, practices) through small groups led by Involved Catholics.

Lukewarm Catholics in the Parish Network: There is an even larger group of the lukewarm Catholics that do not go to Mass even once a month who are connected to the parish network through registration. These could be attracted by social groups build around hobbies and other non religious interests. Evangelization strategy: create as many social groups with many different interests as possible led by the Involved Catholics.

Weak Practicing Catholics: These are people who attend Mass at least once a month but not every week. I considered calling them “mediocre” since the mediocre quality of our liturgies, and the mediocre quality of parish community life is probably responsible for their weak involvement. Evangelization strategy: improve the quality of our parish liturgies and improve parish community life through a greater number and variety of small groups.

Strong Practicing Catholics: These people attend Mass every week. However their very visibility can lead parish leadership to focus upon them and become self satisfied. They are the 20% that can get 80% of the parish staff’s attention. Evangelization strategy: turn Strong Catholics into Involved Catholics. Make some of them leaders and providers not just consumers of parish services.

Involved Catholics: This is the key group for providing leadership for the many small groups (hobbies, support groups, social groups, social justice, faith formation, and liturgical ministries) necessary for strengthening parish networks. Evangelization strategy: develop the leadership skills of Involved Catholics, and attract more people with leadership qualities from among the Strong Practicing Catholics.

Unfortunately the people recruited as Involved Catholics tend to be followers and helpers rather than leaders. They are usually recruited to assist the pastoral staff in the essential faith formation and liturgical ministries of the parish. Often they are not people who have “take charge” skills.

However, there are many people among the Strong Practicing Catholics who have leadership talents and skills derived from experiences like being a member of a religious order, educations in Catholic schools and colleges, involvement in a wide variety of parish programs across the lifespan, and leadership positions in their professions and in civic organizations. These people are interested in providing leadership. Sometimes they show up when there is a call for volunteers to staff new programs. However they quickly disappear when it becomes apparent the call is for helper not leaders; and that the designated “leaders” are well established helpers.

Lay Ecclesial Ministers: Besides coordinating the Involved Catholics in providing the essential ministries of the parish, Lay Ecclesial Ministers often supervise a one size fits all program that is intended to increase the level of parish culture. Often these faith formation programs use small groups to attract people with Involved Catholics as facilitators. At best these programs tend to attract several hundred people (mostly Strong Catholics); at worst they attract a few dozen (mostly Involved Catholics).

Giving More Services to Fewer People? This table supports my experience that parishes have strong motivation to forget about the eighty percent of the people who do not come to Mass every Sunday and focus upon the twenty percent whot do come. This core of the parish can be served well with the existing numbers and quality of Involved Catholics and Lay Ecclesial Ministers.

Or Evangelization? Any attempt to increase the levels of Catholic culture and social networks among the eighty percent of the parish that is not being well served would require not only many more Involved Catholics but more importantly Involved Catholics who are capable of leading a wide variety of small groups on their own. It will also require abandonment of one size fits all faith formation efforts in favor of fostering a wide variety of Catholic culture through various small groups and ministries.

What are your thoughts about this parish data? about evangelization at the parish level? about strengthening parish networks and promoting small groups?

Jack Rakosky, a regular reader of Pray Tell, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current main interest is voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.

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