Mass Exodus

We’ve seen it in most of our parishes: empty pews, easy-out parking, friends and familiar faces who we no longer see at Sunday Mass. This mass exodus we have been experiencing over the last few generations is a true crisis of faith — affecting our happiness in this life — with eternal, perhaps infernal, consequences in the next.

Why Have They Left?

The truth is, despite the many excuses given as to why Catholics no longer attend Mass, the main reason is most simply don’t understand it. A recent Pew Research study illustrates this point. This study found that a mere 31% of Catholics believe that the Eucharist we receive at Mass is the Body and Blood of Christ, while 69% think it’s only a symbol. Further, the survey showed that more than six out of ten Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, while only one in ten Catholics who rarely or never go to Mass do. For if Catholics only knew what the Mass is, Who is there, how we are to participate, and what immeasurable graces are available for us, many never would have left. Conversely, Catholics who will never stop attending Mass, despite the heinous acts and omissions of some of her bishops and priests, are those who know the Mass is the re-presentation of the sacrifice on Calvary, where Jesus is truly present, where we participate by offering ourselves along with His sacrifice to the Father, and where the merits of the Cross are made available to us.

While Catholics as a whole are statistically indistinguishable from the increasingly irrational and immoral culture, Catholics who frequently attend Mass, believe, and tend to live according to, Gospel, not secular values. Further, the reason why the Church seems so ineffective, irrelevant, and even iniquitous, is likely because the Mass, which is the source of her power, is poorly attended, poorly understood, poorly participated in, and poorly celebrated. Relatedly, the reason why our culture has the highest rates of drug use, depression, anxiety, emptiness, and isolation, where the rates of suicide have skyrocketed by 30%, is because too few knowingly and worthily receive the Eucharist, thus have no divine life within us (Jn 6:53). Thus, without knowing what we are doing, or Whom we are receiving, instead of transforming the increasingly secular and sinful culture, as she has always done, the Church has essentially been transformed by the culture. As a result, the three out of four Catholics who attended Sunday Mass in 1959, plummeted to less than one in four today — for every Catholic that enters the faith, more than six Catholics leave it — 80% of Catholics stop practicing by the time they reach twenty-three — and millennials are leaving the Church at the rate of 50%.

What Is the Mass All About?

In recent decades, many mistakenly think that the Mass is just a lame liturgical obligation, a common, communal meal, or the “Father X Show”, oblivious to the immense, invisible, supernatural realities of these sacred mysteries. Maybe it’s our lack of catechesis or lack of reverence in celebrating Mass, or both, but the result has been that the most important, powerful event, where Heaven literally meets Earth, is treated by too many with indifference, as an unpleasant obligation, where fewer each week bother to even show up. But Mass is not an optional, man-made obligation, or something ancillary to our temporal and eternal happiness; rather it is the very means left by Jesus for our salvation, which, according to Padre Pio, is more necessary than the sun.

Jesus celebrated the first Mass which began with the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, ended when Jesus vanished into the bread and his disciples went forth from Emmaus to tell the good news on Easter Sunday, with the climax being His sacrificial suffering and death on the Cross on Good Friday. Every Mass celebrated since is a participation in, and making present of, this same first Mass, enabling Catholics in every nation and generation who knowingly and worthily participate, to receive not only the graces and merits of His sacred sacrifice, but also the living, glorified, Body and Blood of Jesus. At this cosmic, trans-historic, trans-dimensional event, not only are we made supernaturally present at Calvary, but also at the eternal heavenly liturgy, where Jesus, our eternal high priest and victim offers Himself on our behalf to the Father in the Heavenly Holy of Holies (Heb 7:15–25).

During the consecration, our churches are filled with choirs of angels as the priest, in the person of Jesus, offers the bread and wine, as we lift up our hearts to the holy temple of Jesus’ body, entering through the “veil of flesh” (Heb 10:19–20), His open side from where the Church, His mystical body, was conceived. Here, in the inner sanctuary of His sacred heart, the seat of God’s mercy, our divided hearts of stone can be replaced with pure hearts of flesh (Ezek 36:26), and increasingly filled with and transformed by His divine life and love. Because the heart, in the Bible, is not only the source of love, but the seat of the will, it is fitting that Jesus gives us nothing less than His very heart in the Eucharist, filling us with His love and giving us the strength to do the Father’s will. Scientific examination of recent Eucharistic miracles in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Sokolka, Poland have even confirmed that the Eucharist is actual human heart tissue of one who suffers greatly.

How Are We Supposed to Participate?

Many mistakenly believe that participation by the laity at Mass means reflexively reciting the responses in pure Pavlovian fashion, singing loudly the familiar hymns from a veritable time warp of bad music, or forming circuitous conga lines of Eucharistic ministers around the altar. Yet participation in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, means offering ourselves through Mary to and with the sacrifice of Jesus to the Father in the hope that we might be transformed by and conformed to His sacrifice and made acceptable to the Father. This is the secret of the saints — letting the Eucharistic Jesus do the heavy lifting, accomplishing great things in us and through us, if we empty ourselves of our attachments, so that we can be filled with the fire of divine love to share with others.

Jesus poured Himself out completely and died for us so that we might choose to live for Him. We need to accept His gift of salvation, and Mass is the way He left us to do so. If we aren’t present at and participating in this holy sacrifice, how can we unite our sacrifices to His, or partake of the sacred victim, so that we might experience the most intimate, personal relationship with Him? For the Mass, at it deepest reality is a sacrifice — the sacrifice which fulfills the old covenant sacrificial system of worship established by God Himself. As there are no spectators at a sacrifice (there are only priest, victim, and offeror), if we’re not an offeror, offering ourselves and our families along with the bread and wine, we’re not a part of this Holy Sacrifice. And according to the Old Testament, the sacrifice was not complete, or the benefits realized, until the victim was consumed, meaning our worthy reception of the Eucharist.

The Mass is a sacrifice, which requires a sacrifice of us, the sacrifice of our selfish wills, desiring, with God’s help, to be holy and to fulfill the mission for which we were created, so that we might have peace, joy, and life to the fullest (Jn 10:10). Gradually, if we desire to do God’s will and receive the Eucharist with the proper disposition, we are healed, restored to the image and likeness of God, redeemed into His family, and transformed by the indwelling presence of the Holy Trinity, where God is no longer “out there” beyond the cosmos, but our closest companion, abiding in us, dwelling with us, and extending the Incarnation in every age (Jn 15:4–10).

Why We Just Have to Be There!

Many Catholics feel that Mass is just a check the box obligation where we don’t get anything out of it. But Mass is not about “getting something”, it’s about giving something; fitting thanks and praise to God, and offering ourselves as a spiritual sacrifice “acceptable to God through Jesus Christ and presenting our bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). If we do nothing more than this, sanctifying grace can perfect the soul, so that we may abide and act in God’s love, enabling us to resist the empty promises of the world which can never satisfy, and attracting others by our holiness, joy and countercultural witness of love, as did the early church. However, if we merely reflexively and routinely receive the Eucharist without a belief in His Real Presence, or in a state of mortal sin, we may actually be doing great harm to ourselves (1 Cor 11:27–29).

Too often we approach the Eucharist with full hands and a heart full of worldly desires, and then wonder why we don’t feel we “get something” out of it. In order to yield to the transforming power of the Eucharist and receive the infinite merits made present and available to us, we must give completely of ourselves, our wills and weakness, without reservation creating a space for God in our divided, distracted, deepest selves that only He can fill. Jesus lamented to Saint Faustina that, in His coming to souls in the Eucharist, “My hands are full of all kinds of graces which I want to give to the soul. But souls do not even pay attention to Me; they leave Me to Myself and busy themselves with other things. . . . They treat Me as a dead object.”

The Mass is why He established and even died for his Church (Eph 5:25). It is why He, on the night He was handed over, instituted both the priesthood and the Eucharist (Lk 22:19). It is where He applies the graces of the Cross (CCC 1407) and fulfills His final promise to “be with us until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). It is why the Church alone has outlasted and overcome every other earthly empire and institution, uplifting and transforming every sinful pagan culture she encountered; because the Mass is the source of her power (CCC 1074), and the Eucharist the source and summit of the faith (CCC 1324).

One final statistic — those who are among the happiest and most fulfilled, in a society lacking in both, are not the rich, famous, and powerful; they are actually habited religious sisters whose daily lives are centered on the Eucharistic Jesus, both at Mass and adoration. True Mass is an obligation, which if missed could be a mortal sin, but there is nothing better we could do, for ourselves, our families, our community, and our eternal happiness, than to frequently and worthily participate in Holy Mass.

The Mass is the holiest act of religion. You cannot do anything to glorify God more, nor profit your soul more, than by devoutly assisting at it, and assisting as often as possible.”
St. Peter Julian Eymard

John Vrdolyak About John Vrdolyak

John is a Catholic husband and father of five children, who heads the Evangelization Committee for his parish in the Joliet Diocese. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Chicago Law School, currently practicing law in Chicago Illinois. He can be reached via email at


  1. Avatar Deacon X, Name Withheld says:

    My comments concern the even more drastic exodus of millennials from the Church. Why are they leaving?

    As I look around my parish I see people who are divorced and remarried, perhaps several times, without an annulment, yet who receive communion every week. These are those people who attend Mass every week.

    I know of many, many more who practice artificial contraception. They ridicule those who defend the teaching of the Church on this matter. There are Church-going men, active on the parish council, who openly boast about their vasectomy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that the Church is living in the Dark Ages. Again, these are people who go to Church Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year.

    Many of our regular Sunday attendees openly support same-sex “marriage.” I know elderly who tell me that should they get a painful, terminal disease they will end their own life and God will understand.

    Many of our parishioners will regularly take God’s name in vain when necessary to make a point. If I point out their vulgar language they tell me that they can’t control themselves when it comes to that.

    And about abortion? We won’t even go there.

    In addition to being a deacon I am also a professor at a major university. I see young people, millennials, every day. I know that these young people are looking for meaning and purpose in life. Many of them are trying hard to form a deep-rooted spiritual life. Frankly, it saddens me greatly that when these “nones” look into the Catholic Church they come away very disappointed with what they see in the lives of Catholics. Thanks be to God that some discover the truth and beauty that exists to its fullest in the Catholic Church and so fall in love with it. These are our future, but there should we many, many more of them.

    It strikes me that if we want to really know why people are leaving the Church we need look no farther than the nearest mirror.

    Perhaps you understand why I want to withhold my identity. Just call me a voice crying out in the wilderness.

    God bless HPR!

    • While Boomers and Gen-Xers were content to be “Cafeteria Catholics”, Millennials and Gen-Z are simply leaving.

      You are right that they are very disappointed with what they see in the lives of Catholics, but not for the reasons you think. For most, living as you say the Church wants is not appealing in the slightest. Nobody wants to be trapped in a bad marriage, not being able to control how many children they have, required to judge your gay friends, or to suffer needlessly at the end of life. To live this way in modern society involves a major sacrifice with serious social and economic consequences. It is a hard yoke and a heavy burden and Church leaders are rarely straightforward about this.

      You would probably argue that doing so is worth it for the spiritual rewards, but this brings us to the second problem: Young people do not trust the Church. And why should they given the conduct of many Church leaders?

      Why would someone make so many deep personal sacrifices at the urging of a group of people who have shown themselves to be corrupt and untrustworthy?

      Additionally, the support of Trump by many conservative Christians is a major scandal. They demand so much out of their members, but seem to give Trump a pass on all of it. It feels like a double-standard. Does God have different standards for the powerful than for the common?

      To be clear, liberal Christianity is not the answer either. It is too focused on earthly political action on economic issues and, generally, is not worth getting out of bed on Sunday morning for.

      • I think you are describing very well the inadequacy and vulnerability of (merely) natural faith in a Catholic – and I sadly have concluded that many Catholics today are poorly catechized and “formed” in a parish culture of institutionalized tepidity and worldliness. For such Catholics, (merely) natural faith may be the dominant foundation of their attachment to the Church. This kind of attachment is weak and fragile, easily overrun by forces and pressures you describe well. Many Catholics today fit this condition; they are easily drawn away.

        The solution to this problem – for them personally and for the Church – is simple, actually. They need to discover, to learn to access, to nurture and to grow, the precious gift given them by God in Baptism, of supernatural infused faith. This supernatural faith is the foundation of an interior life in them of intimate communion with God the Holy Trinity. This treasure is for them a house built on the eternal Rock, not on (mere) perishable sand. It is strong – a fortress that can withstand the assaults of the evil forces growing in our midst today.

        I have an essay on HPR from a year ago on this subject, in more detail:

      • You speak like a “fallen away” Catholic. I would be, too, if that wet blanket, depressing attitude was what represented my faith. Under each of those attitudes shows what you don’t know about what the Church teaches (and requires of its believers) and WHY. Too bad! You are missing a great gift, and a rich spiritual life. And, Yeah, Trump is an idiot, but the other choice wants to slaughter babies.

  2. Avatar joyce venaglia says:

    How can we get reprints of this article?..It’s great

    • Daniel A. Nicholls Daniel A. Nicholls says:

      If you want rights to republish the article, contact us with details. If you just want to print it for your own reading, use the share tools up above or your browser’s print function — articles should print nicely!

    • Fr. Meconi Fr. Meconi says:

      Feel free to pass this along as widely as you wish!

  3. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    I was sad that your article never mentioned the need for conversion. So many people have never been touched by the Good News, proclaimed by believers from a joy-filled community. There is little to encourage being part of the Eucharistic celebration. If I was a young person in search of meaning, I would not find it in many Catholic Churches. I visit Catholic communities all around the country. When I enter and leave I am a stranger, alone, and not encouraged to return as a member of a loving community.

    In the Eucharist, there is a secret prayer; “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” My power to know will never bring me to the great joy of sharing in the divinity of Christ. When one truly encounters Christ, one begins, in the Spirit, to open up to the love of the other, to missionary discipleship, to a willingness to give gratuitously to brothers and sisters who lack the necessities of life.

    • My young adults are more impressed when they see adults on their knees with a rosary in hand and reverence on their lips. They go to worship and encounter GOD in the transcendent during Mass and in a reverent Church. Sadly, they often find a social hall atmosphere and cannot connect with Christ. They do not want to meet and encounter people with hand shakes and back claps , etc. while in the Church. Where has that helped in the last 70 years??? Such ideas of a welcoming social atmosphere have drowned out the transcendent in the Church. All opportunities to connect with Christ go out the window when the worship of people and relationships is taking place before, during, and after mass. That stuff belongs in the social hall after mass. Leave the Holy Mass and the Church proper alone, in reverence, as a silent invitation to find God.

    • Avatar john vrdolyak says:

      Thanks Tom (and all) for your comments. As you probably know there are no shortage of problems in the Church any one or more of which in concert could serve as a rationale, or excuse, for not attending Sunday Mass. Further, in our universal Church, what some view as a problem with the Mass (i.e. casual, community-centered, feel-good, religious entertainment) others view as the solution, though statistics are not kind to those in the latter camp. I’m sorry you were saddened by my failure to mention the need for conversion, but my intent in writing was not to identify every issue we face. While I wanted to provide some statistics and a brief explanation of how we got here, given page constraints, I thought I should spend more time on where we are and provide a hopeful way forward, if we only devote ourselves to teaching that the Mass is the same eternal sacrifice of Jesus at Calvary, and that the Eucharist we receive is His living, glorified Body and Blood, so that more won’t leave and some might come back. If I were to list all the reasons for our statistical demise in terms of the few practitioners we have, and our disbelief in the Real Presence, I could have listed, among others, the Novus Ordo Mass, wholesale elimination of Latin, Versus Populum Liturgies, Ad-libbing celebrants, apathetic elevations, absent or careless purifications, folk or rock masses, irreverent liturgies, dressing down at Mass, receiving the Eucharist in the hand, the wrecovation of our sacred spaces (hiding tabernacles, removing altar rails, stripping sanctuaries, turning pews toward the people, and remodeling and building stark, sterile, people-centered meeting halls), innocuous homilies, and the constant lowering of the bar to create a low-risk, low-reward, complacent, cushy, comfortable, cultural Catholicism, to name but a few. Many however would disagree with some or all of the above.

      I’ve found that although I prefer a reverent Ad Orientem Mass with a generous helping of Latin, with chant, polyphany and silence, many others who attend daily or weekly Mass would be repelled, viewing it as a rigid return to the pre-concilar reforms and the ensuing zeitgeist, especially without proper catechesis. In our universal Church we have many approved forms of the liturgy, and I’ve come to believe, despite my preference, that there’s room for different liturgies, even at the same parish, otherwise we’d be in the single digit Mass attendance range on par with some of Western Europe. But one thing that should never be subject to our personal preferences, and what we must convey with and without words, is that the Mass is the Sacrifice of Calvary (not Eucharistic celebration), the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus, requiring our fully conscious and active participation and worthy reception, so that the merits of the Cross and graces of the Sacrament may lead to the conversion which you feel I omitted. Conversion and community, to me, are the fruits of the Mass not prerequisites.

      One final note, digging deeper into that Pew Study we see that 87% of Catholics who seldom/never attend Mass, don’t believe that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus. My belief is that in most of these instances, their lack of catechesis/faith in the Real Presence is the primary reason they no longer attend Mass – for it if they believed, to where or to Whom would they go?

    • Avatar Father Khouri says:

      Conversion what a novel idea! The old excuse of poor cateshsis is just a part of the problem.

      A call to conversion and practical steps toward this is more key.

      If the days of the Baltimore Catechism were so great why did we have such a great falling away by those formed in it? Knowledge about God isn’t knowledge of God.

      • But no knowledge about God leads to no God.

      • Thank you, Fr. Khouri, for your brief comment. I agree that a focus on only “catechesis” would be only a partial solution – just as a focus on only “conversion” would be partial. A newly converted person cannot be left to fend for himself, without a living Church to nurture and raise him, any more than a newly born infant can be left abandoned on the street. Nor ought a newly born child/Christian be entrusted to a dysfunctional family/church, where he is fed mixed messages, given mixed examples to follow, taught contradictions to believe – in other words made a citizen (to use St. Augustine’s analysis) of both the City of Man and the City of God.

        The Church is called to provide full, complete comprehensive formation in the Faith, from conversion to sanctity in Christ: all are called to holiness and the perfection of charity. We need to realize ( both perceive and make real) the obligation that Jesus placed upon us: make disciples.

  4. From a scriptural angle, what your article describes (the mass exodus from the Catholic Church) is explained by St. Paul. When looking to the future of the Church, St. Paul spoke of a future “apostasy” (i.e., loss of faith, apostasia in the original Greek) and the revelation of the “lawless one” (2 Thess 2: 2-8). St. Paul even gives the reason that this would take place: “they have not accepted the love of truth so that they may be saved” (2 Thess 2: 10). This diabolical dimension explains the fury and Pharisaical self-righteousness of the secularists in their desire to eliminate anything religious. They are under the spell of the Father of Lies who hides behind expressions like “mercy killing” to eclipse the truth about the evil involved. Like Peter in the courtyard, too many of our ecclesiastics today are in effect denying Christ because of their fear of the (earthly) consequences. Nevertheless, St. Paul in the same passage also predicts the victory of goodness through the “breath” (Holy Spirit) of Jesus which in some mysterious way will reverse the situation. At Fatima, Mary basically repeats what St. Paul said with his prediction, saying that after the chaos she warned us of, “My Immaculate Heart will triumph and a time of peace will be granted to the world.” She asked especially for the prayer of the rosary and reparation for sin as our indispensable contribution to hastening the day of the triumph that does require human cooperation with heaven’s merciful designs.

  5. The statistics show that a large percentage of Catholics, when they do attend Mass a) do not “discern the body” in the Eucharist and thus “eat and drink judgment upon themselves”; or b) receive the Eucharist in sate of objectively grave sin and thus very probably “must answer for the body and blood of the Lord.”

    Think about it. What if every Sunday, in Catholic churches all over the world, instead of pleasing the Lord we are profaning his Body and Blood and committing sacrilege on a massive scale? Yet, it seems that this is what we do. We make a mockery of the Eucharist, and God will not be mocked, at least not for long.

    Lord, have mercy on us.

  6. My break from Mass is due to personal experience watching 9 priests over 12 years and their personal misconduct. Open homosexuality, theft of parish funds, abuse of the Eucharist, denying sacraments to the people, multiple girl friends, and more. All these issues were reported to the diocese with no follow up on order to protect the priests. Personal shortcomings are one can thing but these are the ones who are telling the people to be morally prepared to receive communion. At some point these men are no longer able to celebrate the Eucharist.

  7. If you pay attention to what is in the New Testament, especially the epistles, you will find that its priorities are much different than what we have in today’s Catholicism. I think we should get back to the New Testament Christianity regardless of the impact that it will have on the number of Catholics.

  8. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Pope Francis says that the word of the Lord comes to unsettle us: he speaks of being “unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord” (Letter to Priests). Therefore does it really matter where we begin; indeed, it is possible that we take so much notice of where other people are that we fall into the hole in the ground in front of us. In other words, whether I am in the Church or out of it, in one kind of celebration or another, lapsed, in sin, recovering from sin, unaware of sin, Pope or anonymous in the pew – we all need God to take us from where we are to where we cannot go without him (look out for a two part essay on Conscience, taken from a forthcoming book: Human Nature: Moral Norm) – Or buy a book already published!

  9. Avatar Thereserita says:

    Yesterday (11/11/19) Bp Barron made an excellent presentation on this topic to the USCCB plenary meeting. One of his five recommendations involved not “dumbing down” the precepts of the Church in order to make it more palatable to modernity. I wish he would’ve highlighted the correlative of this recommendation that puts the onus on those who teach these precepts to “walk the walk” while they “talk the talk.”
    In the end, the mass exodus from the Catholic Church is a direct result of the lack of integrity of her proponents. All the programs/recommendations/hand wringing in the world amounts to little if we’re not in love with Christ & his Body, the Church.