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Mass attendance up since closings, archdiocese says

The number of people attending Mass in the Boston Archdiocese has risen slightly since widespread church closings began, despite dozens fewer parishes, some tumultuous closings, and a falling Catholic population, archdiocesan officials said.

Last year, 319,559 Catholics attended Mass regularly, up from 316,811 in 2003, the year before the closings began, according to statistics from the archdiocese.

During the same period, the number of parishes fell from 357 to 303 and the archdiocese's Catholic population dropped more than 11 percent, falling below 2 million for the first time in at least 15 years, church officials said.

The steady attendance through the closings was a validation of the archdiocese's closing plan, said Kathleen Heck, who worked for the archdiocese assisting the transition between closed parishes and the parishes that accepted the transferring parishioners.

Though heavy media coverage was given to protesters, most of the roughly 28,000 parishioners who attended Mass at now-closed parishes understood the reasons why and kept going to church in the archdiocese, Heck said.

But Thomas Groome, a theology professor at Boston College, said the numbers are no reflection of the merits of the church's closing plan, which he said shut down some healthy parishes. He said local Catholics have shown maturity by sticking by their faith even if they were unhappy with the church and the closings.

''I think people have endured it and survived it," he said.

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley announced the church closings in 2004, saying the process was crucial to the church's financial future. Some parishioners protested. Around-the-clock vigils continue at a handful of parishes.

Sixty-two parishes have closed since, and 15 remain to be shut down. The bulk of the closings occurred in 2004, but Mass attendance that year was actually higher than in 2005, at 321,908.

The archdiocese's statistics on Mass attendance and population are not perfectly comparable, year to year, because of the methods used to collect the numbers. Mass attendance is counted annually by parishes each weekend in October, except for Columbus Day weekend, but not all parishes report their counts. In 2003 and 2005, for instance, roughly 10 percent of the parishes did not report their attendance.

The area's total Catholic population, which dropped from 2.08 million to 1.84 million between 2003 and 2005, also isn't a scientific number, in part because parishes have various ways of figuring their population, Heck said. She added that the drop since 2003 can be partly explained by the fact Catholics at closed parishes were not automatically registered at the church where their old parish merged.

The 2005 statistics show that just 17 percent of Catholics in the Boston Archdiocese regularly attend Mass. That's compared with 34 percent of Catholics nationwide who say they attend church weekly, according to William D'Antonio, a visiting research professor at Catholic University of America.

Given the low percentage attending Mass, Boston's relatively steady numbers through the church closings aren't surprising, D'Antonio said. ''You're not going to get much lower," he said.

Mass attendance took its largest recent hit when the clergy sex abuse scandal broke in 2002, falling about 14 percent from the previous year, from 358,079 to 308,829.

Heck said people had a visceral reaction when they learned children had been abused, but the church closings weren't a surprise for many, she said.

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