The Archdiocese of Montreal could see up to half-a-million worshippers fill its 200-plus churches this year, according to projections generated by Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby.
Christmas is just around the corner, and so are thousands of "Christmas and Easter" Catholics who ritually overtake churches every Christmas Eve. That's triple the number who regularly show up every Sunday. In the rest of Canada, numbers could be as high as 50 per cent attendance.
While the "C & E" crowd is often looked upon disparagingly, "don't write off these people as cultural Catholics," warned the religious-trends expert. They represent the majority of Canadians (44 per cent) who, while ambivalent toward religion generally, comprise a solid core (42 per cent) of Catholics open to greater involvement in church life. That margin of openness, however, has one condition: it must be "found to be worthwhile," he told about 100 community leaders in Montreal Nov. 30, at an event co-sponsored by the English Speaking Catholic Council and the English sector of the Archdiocese of Montreal.
"Worthwhile" for this middle or "low religion" group means ministry that meets or addresses their spiritual needs in ways that makes sense to them, Bibby said. It also includes ministry that offers people some practical help with their everyday concerns, that fosters personal relationships, and where people feel comfortable seeking help and guidance. Bibby described this type of ministerial approach as spiritual, personal and relational.
While this core group of disaffected Catholics offers a solid evangelization opportunity to the Catholic Church in Canada, that is less so in Quebec, where those in the "low religion" group who are disposed to greater church involvement number only 20 per cent, compared with the rest of Canada at 50 per cent. Still, Quebec's high Catholic identification rate means that an effective outreach to that 20 per cent could result in more than one million Catholics reconsidering their faith involvement, Bibby observed.
Church-going in Montreal
Bibby had more upbeat news for Montreal's English Catholic community. While weekly church attendance in the Greater Montreal Area stands at 9 per cent and when monthly church attendance is factored in, at 17 per cent, the attendance numbers for English-speaking Catholics are relatively higher: 14 per cent for weekly and 21 per cent when monthly attendees are included. When it comes to regular mass attendance, Montreal's English-speaking Catholics fall halfway between their French-speaking counterparts and Catholics in the rest of the country.
The Montreal attendance rates were also highest for those who speak another language at home other than French or English (39 per cent for weekly attendees, 55 per cent when combined with monthly attendance). These Catholics attend either French, English or Cultural Community parishes/missions.
Bibby's findings were drawn from his two recently published works, Canada's Catholics (2016), which he co-authored with Angus Reid, and Resilient Gods (2017). Both draw upon data from a 2015 survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute in which 3,041 respondents participated, of which 1,152 were Catholics. The authors also draw extensively on surveys conducted by Statistics Canada, the Pew Research Centre and their previous studies, which span several decades.
Bibby underscored two main messages for his Montreal audience. First, the popular notion propagated by politicians, pollsters and pundits that religion is becoming increasingly irrelevant in Canada and will eventually be replaced by secularism as older generations and old habits disappear is more myth than fact.
"They're wrong," Bibby stated categorically, citing PEW data forecasting that, in the decades to come, the trend regarding those who profess "no religion" will level off and, instead of seeing a continuous erosion of religious adherence and practice in favour of secularism, there will be more polarization regarding the religion factor in Canada.
According to this view, a significant number of Canadians will continue to "embrace religion" (currently 30 per cent) and to profess "no religion" (now 26 per cent). The majority, "low religion," will situate themselves somewhere in the middle (44 per cent), many of whom will remain open to more church involvement, which is where the most work needs to be done, Bibby underlined.
In his second message, Bibby underscored that the religion factor in Canada will hold its own through increased immigration in the coming decades, and that Catholicism stands to gain significantly.
In the first decade of the new millennium, the largest number of immigrants were Roman Catholic. According to current immigration patterns, many newcomers emigrate from countries with significant Catholic populations, such as the Philippines, Mexico and France. Statistics Canada forecasts that by 2036, Canadian population growth will be generated 100 per cent through immigration rather than through natural increase.
In conclusion, Bibby identified the double challenge now facing the Catholic Church for the coming decades: to develop ways to minister effectively to the "low religion" group and, at the same time, to meet the needs and expectations of the diverse groups of Catholic newcomers who will be knocking on its church doors.