The Catholic Church in Italy has experienced an unprecedented decrease in Mass attendance since 2001, with the COVID era marking a significant acceleration of this decline. While the majority of Italians still claim Catholicism as their faith, some experts suggest Italy is on the same trajectory of secularization as the rest of Europe, albeit perhaps a few years behind.
These were the findings of a recent data report from the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat), which examined the rates of Mass attendance in Italy since the turn of the century. In the last two decades, Italian Mass attendance has dropped from 36.4% to 18.8% in what has traditionally been one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. Furthermore, the diminishment between 2001 and 2019 was only slightly higher than that of 2020 to 2022.
According to National Catholic Register, much of the blame is being placed on the pandemic, which shuttered church doors and kept people from worshiping in person for the better part of two years. The people just are not returning to church since the isolation orders ended, with nearly a third (31%) of Catholics not attending church for anything but weddings, baptisms, or funerals. This is a stark contrast to the 16% who reported such habits in 2001.
The younger generations have been the slowest to return to worship, with an estimated two-thirds (66%) of those aged between 14 and 24 rarely if ever going to church.
NCR spoke with Riccardo Cascioli, editor-in-chief of the Catholic Italian website La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana (“New Daily Compass”), who noted that the high rates of those who still call themselves Catholic in Italy (around 70%) can be explained by the presence of the Vatican. Italy has always been considered an exception in the European trend of secularization, as it contains the heart of Christianity in Vatican City. As the generations change, however, so too can the Italian perception of themselves as a Catholic nation.
“This is what John Paul II meant when he said that faith must become fully cultured, that it must condition our way of thinking and living.” Cascioli added, “He always said that, since he believed that Christ had risen, his whole way of looking at the realities of the world was affected by that, and he always kept this in mind when dealing with his interlocutors, whether they were communists, Muslims, Jews, atheists …”
While the projections for Italy seem bleak, journalist John Allen Jr. has argued that the situation is not exactly how the data suggests. Allen noted that the 18.8% of attending Italian Catholics represents an impressive 11.28 million people worshiping at Mass each week. When placed against Italy’s soccer teams, for which the average Italian has a zeal to rival their faith, the Church still pulls in tens of millions more each week.
Allen supports his argument with personal reflections on his own time in Italy, where he has observed the religious habits of rural Italian Catholics, as well as those in urban areas. Read his excellent observations on the Italian Catholic faith at Crux.