PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Ahead of his upcoming trip to confer with Pope Francis, Rhode Island’s Catholic bishop has released new numbers that starkly illustrate the faith’s shrinking reach in the state.
“Numbers don’t lie,” wrote Bishop Thomas Tobin in an accompanying letter, saying the Diocese of Providence “is experiencing a quantitative decline.”
Dubbed a “Pastoral Profile” and published in the Rhode Island Catholic newspaper, the statistics aren’t necessarily a surprise — they reflect longstanding trends in Catholic life across New England. But they lay bare just how much the local religious landscape has changed over the past two decades, a period when the church has been rocked by the sex abuse crisis.
“The fact that this decline in religious practice is not at all unique to the Diocese of Providence — but is common to other dioceses in our part of the world and to other faith communities as well — is not much of a comfort,” Tobin wrote. “Without a doubt it presents daunting challenges.”
Back in 2000, Rhode Island’s Catholic parishes reported 525,000 parishioners; last year they reported only 321,000, a drop of nearly 40% over 18 years. While the number of parishioners equaled more than half the entire Rhode Island population in 2000, it now equals less than a third.
The decline in Mass attendance has been even more dramatic, plunging from 188,000 in 2000 to just 80,000 today — a decrease of 57%. There are fewer services to attend, too: while there were 609 Masses in Rhode Island each weekend in 2000, there are now 482.
The litany continues: the annual number of Catholic weddings has declined from over 2,000 to under 700 last year; baby baptisms and First Communions have each dropped from over 6,000 to well under 3,000; and confirmations have fallen from 4,800 to 2,900.
There is also a shrinking and aging corps of priests available to celebrate Mass, with only 134 priests in active ministry last year, down from 216 in 2000. The diocese expects to ordain 13 new priests over the next six years, but more than twice as many will turn 70 years old.
The numbers — many of which are self-reported by parishes — are noteworthy in part because Rhode Island is often ranked as the nation’s most Catholic state. Tobin said the data shows the local faithful “must continue making the structural adjustments we have already begun in responding to the new realities in which we are living.”
“These changes will include clergy assignments, parish configurations, Mass schedules, and educational resources,” he wrote in his letter. “Every member of the Church should expect to be affected by these changes.” He also urged Catholics to “renew our efforts at evangelization — with boldness and creativity.”
Diocesan leaders compiled the numbers for their Quinquennial Report, which is sent to the Vatican every five years ahead of the bishop’s ad limina meeting with the pope. (“Ad limina” is Latin for “to the threshold.”) Tobin is slated to make his ad limina trip to Rome in the second week of November.
Tobin highlighted more positive statistics in his letter, too, such as the $3.35 million raised since 2005 for the “Keep the Heat On” program and the 103,000 Rhode Islanders served by various Catholic social services last year.
“By far the Catholic Church is the largest and most impactful faith community in our state,” the bishop wrote.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook