PROVIDENCE — The Diocese of Providence has compiled statistical data about the state of the Catholic Church in Rhode Island from 2000-2018 in a Pastoral Profile designed to provide the faithful with a roadmap to the current pastoral landscape of the local Church.
While the highlighted declines in Mass attendance, sacramental practice and vocations to the priesthood should not come as a surprise to anyone — all having been well-documented as the diocese has sought to address these concerns over the last five years through its pastoral planning process — the publication of the profile also serves to highlight a myriad of ways the diocese provides valuable and needed service to individuals and communities across the state through its many outreach programs and ministries.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE PASTORAL PROFILE
And the Diocese of Providence is far from alone in experiencing such declines, which are being felt in many dioceses across the nation and the world.
According to the report, between 2000-2018 the population of Rhode Island grew from 987,429 to 1,057,315. During that same 18-year period, the number of parishioners reported by all Catholic churches across the diocese experienced a steep decline, dropping by nearly 200,000, from 525,181 in 2000 to 321,315 in 2018.
Likewise, the number of people choosing to get married, or have their children baptized, make their first Communion or be confirmed in the Catholic Church experienced a similar downturn.
In particular, the number of infant children being baptized into the faith declined by nearly two-thirds in those 18 years, dropping from 6,274 in 2000 to 2,343 in 2018.
The profile also shows that while the number of students attending Catholic high schools across the diocese declined by nearly 12 percent, from 5,449 in 2000 to 4,806 in 2018, the number of students attending Catholic elementary schools suffered a more precipitous decline, with enrollment dropping about 56 percent, from 13,541 students reported in 2000 to 5,911 in 2018.
“At first glance it can certainly be challenging, and perhaps even somewhat discouraging, because the declining numbers in that sense are not a good thing — whether we talk about declining numbers of priests in active ministry, or the declining number of registered parishioners, or Sunday Mass attendance or people receiving the sacraments, but the fact is that’s what we have. This is our time in history. This is the real situation in which the Church is ministering right now,” Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, who commissioned the Pastoral Profile, said in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic.
The bishop believes that no one should think these declines are unique to the Diocese of Providence.
“This is widespread throughout New England and in the Northeast, the Great Lakes of the United States and certainly in other parts of the Western World and Western Europe the numbers are just as bad or even worse.
“That doesn’t eliminate our challenges; it just says there’s a broader context for this that’s really a cultural and historic shift that we find ourselves in the middle of.
While the declining numbers cannot be denied, the bishop believes the numbers don’t tell the whole story because even in the midst of the changing scene, the Church continues to do great work every day, and people can’t forget or ignore that.
“By far the Catholic Church is the largest and most impactful faith community in our State,” Bishop Tobin says in his introductory letter to the Pastoral Profile.
“Every day throughout our Diocese people are gathering for worship, children are being educated, youth are being inspired, and thousands of people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, are receiving social and charitable services. The Church is making a profound difference in our society — we continue to be the ‘salt of the earth and the light of the world’ (Mt 5 13-14) Jesus called us to be.”
A significant portion of the Pastoral Profile focuses on the services the diocese and its faithful support through their generosity each year to ensure the ministries that provide social, educational and spiritual support to thousands in local communities throughout the state can continue to do so.
Since 2005, for instance, $3.35 million has been raised through donations from parishes, schools and individuals to support “Keep the Heat On,” the diocesan energy assistance program that has kept 14,089 individuals and families warm through the coldest of winters.
Since 2010, hundreds of men with no other place to turn for shelter have had a warm and safe place to sleep during the winter at the diocesan Emmanuel House Homeless Shelter, which also provides meals and other services, including addiction recovery, counseling and employment resources.
In 2018 alone, 103,315 people were assisted by diocesan social services that provided outreach to the homeless, legal services, counseling, food pantries and soup kitchens.
Also in 2018, $1,953,060 in Tuition Assistance Grants were provided to 2,050 Catholic school students in the diocese’s 32 Catholic elementary and seven high schools.
And to assist in this overall mission, there have been 450 men and women religious in the Diocese of Providence, as of 2018, who live their witness to faith and service every day.
So, taking into account the challenges presented in the Pastoral Profile, how does the diocese continue to minister in this changing context?
“There will be many changes that we’ve already started and we’ll continue, and perhaps even accelerate in the diocese going forward,” Bishop Tobin said, noting how with fewer priests to serve in light of greater numbers reaching retirement age and less vocations to the priesthood being pursued, priests increasingly will have more than one assignment, while in parishes, some will merge, and inevitably, some will close.
“As the school age population continues to change, some schools will eventually close,” he added.
Perhaps one of the changes that people in the pews will see most clearly is that their Mass schedules have to change.
“If they’re used to having four or five Masses on a weekend in their parish that’s not going to last forever. And they have to be patient and understanding of that,” he said.
The publication of the Pastoral Profile for the diocese coincides with the preparation of what is known as the Quinquennial Report, a comprehensive profile of the state of the diocese that is sent to the Vatican in advance of a bishop’s Ad Limina Visit, which takes places approximately every five years or longer, at the invitation of the Holy See.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin will join other bishops from the New England Region for their scheduled meeting with Pope Francis, as well as Vatican curial officials, in November.
Father Timothy Reilly, diocesan chancellor, worked closely with the Office of Communications in compiling both reports.
“To my knowledge this is the first time we’ve ever done as far a snapshot or Pastoral Profile of the Diocese of Providence,” Father Reilly said.
“Bishop Tobin thought it would be a good time to include the fresh information, fresh data that we had gathered for the diocese Quinquennial Report to use some of that information for a more pastoral profile snapshot of the life of the diocese.”
Most of the statistics regarding the number of parishioners reported were sourced from the Quinquennial Report, as was the data regarding personnel, such as the number of religious women and men, permanent deacons and the number of priests in active ministry as of Dec. 31, 2018.
For the statistical information provided on the sacrament celebrations and the school and parish religious formation, most of that data was taken from the Status Animarum, which is an annual report on the state of the sacramental life of the diocese, as submitted by the parishes.
Rebecca Page Perez, the diocesan Pastoral Planning director, said the bishop’s Pastoral Profile yields valuable insight and presents information in a form readily accessible to the faithful to help them understand the challenges the Church faces.
“It’s good that we have this report, it’s taking a temperature of the diocese,” she said.