Since Camden Bishop Joseph Galante began merging South Jersey parishes three years ago in what has become a model for dioceses nationwide, Mass attendance has fallen substantially, according to data provided by the diocese.
In the fall of 2006, a year and a half before Galante announced that he planned to reduce the number of parishes by more than a third, the annual fall Mass count was 114,000 parishioners. Last fall, the count dropped below 100,000 in the diocese, which stretches across southern New Jersey.
"Yes, it's disappointing," Galante said Tuesday. "But the diminution in Mass attendance didn't happen overnight, and I don't expect that overnight it will suddenly recover."
A former undersecretary at the Vatican, Galante has made the issue of helping parishes overcome a priest shortage and falling attendance his signature mission since taking over the Camden Diocese in late 2004. In his first year, he went out to the churches, sometimes visiting four in a week, and concluded that downsizing was the only option.
With fewer parishes, fewer priests are needed and money is freed for professional ministers to provide services such as marriage counseling and youth ministry.
Also, having fewer empty pews could liven up Mass, drawing the younger demographic the church has been struggling to retain.
The problem Galante was trying to solve was one that church leaders across the United States are struggling with: how to get Catholics to church in a culture that is increasingly secular.
And the Catholic Church's ongoing sexual-abuse scandal has pushed many Catholics away, the bishop said.
"It provided a justification for people who were already shaky in their faith," he said. "We haven't done a good job giving people a grounding in the faith."
The percentage of Catholics who attend Mass weekly has fallen to 31 percent, from 62 percent in the 1950s, according to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Catholic churches in the Northeast and Midwest, especially those in urban areas, have been hit especially hard.
In the Philadelphia Archdiocese, average weekly Mass attendance fell 8 percent from 2007 to 2010, when it totaled 274,608.
There have been other mergers in the Northeast, most notably in Boston in the early 2000s, but none on the relative scale of Camden, said Charles Zech, director of Villanova University's Center for the Study of Church Management.
"Everyone around the country's watching," he said. "Whenever you do something like Camden's doing, you're going to alienate some people, and that can speed the drop in attendance."
And Galante's bid to create "more vibrant" parishes has rubbed many parishioners the wrong way.
At St. Mary's Church in Malaga, parishioners have been keeping a 24-hour a day vigil since Jan. 3 to protest the decision to close their church.
One of the leaders of the protest, Vineland lawyer Leah Vassallo, said that even beyond the protesters' attachment to the 90-year-old church, she sees Galante's mergers as a movement away from the church's most cherished traditions.
"I disagree with the idea you can convert churches into cash to pay people to make the church more vibrant," she said. "You take away everything people consider sacred and say [the church is] just a building. A church is God's home. A church is consecrated. It becomes more than what it was before."
While many might disagree with Galante's methods, everyone agrees that there is a problem.
One of the factors that determined the mergers was the poor finances of the parishes, about one third of which could not pay their bills, the bishop said.
Mergers will reduce some of the costs, but if the parishes are going to achieve financial security, Galante says, attendance and collections, the churches' primary income source, must increase.
To that end, Galante is getting ready to begin a large-scale hiring of professional support staff for the priests, to provide more services to parishioners and put on events, such as a recent event staged near Rowan University where Galante spoke on human rights with beer-drinking students.
"The young people are interested in justice issues, poverty, how you improve the society you live in, and these are all areas the Catholic Church is active in," Galante said.
Since the mergers began in 2008, the diocese has seen some success, both related and unrelated to the mergers. Attendance among Mexicans and Central Americans, who have moved to the region in large numbers over the last decade, is up considerably, Galante said.
In some parishes, the mergers are already having their desired effect. At St. Vincent Pallotti Church in Haddon Township, ground zero for the fight against the mergers until Galante reversed course and made it the parish seat, Sunday Mass is far better attended than it had been in years, said parishioner John Hargrave.
"Is the bishop succeeding? It's way too soon to say," he said. "But he deserves credit for recognizing the problem and trying to do something about it. I don't think there was any other choice."
But Galante's plan is something of a gamble.
If attendance does not turn around soon, hiring professional staff could place the diocese, which took a big hit in the 2008 stock market crash, in an even more precarious financial position.
Galante spent much of his career in Texas and was impressed by the growth and vibrancy of the parishes there, which he attributes not only to demographics but to a longtime commitment to serving the community beyond Mass and rosary prayers.
"When you perform services for people, they come and they give," the bishop said. "I hope [those who left] come around. Change is hard for everyone. Most human beings don't like a lot of change."
Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or email@example.com.