Like perennial sports champions, St. Joseph Parish in Salem and Our Lady of La Vang in Portland have competed over the last decade for largest Mass attendance in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. Last November, at the latest count, Our Lady of La Vang edged out St. Joseph, with 4,357 in the Vietnamese parish’s pews to 4,323 at St. Joseph.

Sarah Bertrand, in the archdiocese’s Office for Clergy, says the annual November head counts are used for many reasons, both at the archdiocese and beyond. The numbers help archdiocesan offices know the number of resources needed at a particular parish, for instance. The numbers also go to national publications such as the Kenedy Directory, now known as the Official Catholic Directory.

The counts also are taken into consideration for pastors’ pay.

Another six parishes — Holy Trinity and St. Cecilia in Beaverton, St. Anthony in Tigard, Sacred Heart in Medford (with its mission, St. Joseph in Jacksonville), St. Matthew in Hillsboro and St. Anne in Portland — boasted more than 2,000 parishioners in their pews on that Sunday.

The next cohort, with more than 1,000 parishioners attending, consists of 18 parishes, from Portland to Central Point.

All those parishes are larger than either the average or the median parish in the archdiocese.

St. James in Molalla, with 470 parishioners counted at the November Masses, is the median, with half of parishes more populous and half less.

No parish hits the archdiocesan average of 744 worshippers but St. Patrick in Independence comes closest, with 750 worshippers attending Mass on the Sunday count.

Ten parishes typically count fewer than 100 worshippers, including tiny St. Michael in Grand Ronde and St. André Bessette in Portland. Smaller parishes often are in isolated areas, like Grand Ronde, meaning that Catholics there, particularly elderly Catholics, would be hard pressed to travel in order to receive the Eucharist. St. André, with its mission to the homeless and marginalized of downtown Portland, is a bustling place despite its low numbers of Massgoers.

The total number of Catholics at Mass on headcount day in 2019 was 90,735. (For the accompanying map, the numbers were averaged over the past five years, giving a total of 92,275.)

That number contrasts with the estimated number of self-identified Catholics in western Oregon — more than 450,000. That’s a slippery estimate, however, for several reasons. To begin with, it’s garnered from several different sources. Secondly, “self-identified Catholics” may not be very Catholic.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 57% of self-identified Catholic adults attend religious services only a few times a year or less often.

Those folks are sometimes known as “dormant Catholics” and they’ve been part of the community for decades. Jesuit Father Joseph Fichter, a sociologist who studied parish life, mentioned dormant Catholics in 1952 in an article he wrote for the American Journal of Sociology, among other journals.

It’s not just Catholics, of course.

Earlier this month, the Barna research group described America’s religious landscape as being split between practicing Christians, people who had attended church within the last month; nonpracticing Christians, those who self-identified as Christian but who hadn’t attended church in the past month; and non-Christians, U.S. adults who do not identify as Christian.

“The share of practicing Christians has nearly dropped in half since 2000,” Barna analysts wrote.

Gallup polled specifically on Catholic Mass attendance in 2018, finding that less than half of Catholics ages 60 and up attended Mass weekly, with even smaller percentages for younger groups, ranging down to 25% of Catholics ages 21-29 attending Mass weekly.

Bad news, right?

Not so fast, said Miriam Marston, coordinator for the Institute for Catholic Life and Leadership in the Archdiocese of Portland.

“It’s tremendously fertile ground for evangelization,” she said.

Marston thinks that lapsed Catholics and the unchurched, who know very little about Catholicism or Christianity, are overlapping, explaining that people generally reject what they think Christianity is, rather than taking the time to actually learn what Christianity truly is. Marston thinks the number of people who reject true Christianity is vanishingly low.

“There are so many reasons to be hopeful,” she said. “People here show an openness to talking about the Catholic Church that I didn’t see in other parts of the country.”

Father Anthony Ahamefule, parish priest at Holy Trinity in Bandon and chair of the archdiocese’s priests’ convocation committee, also said that the data, including the November headcount, was helpful as the priests reviewed what they could do to to unite parishioners behind evangelization efforts.

“I think it goes back to the basics, to the foundations of our priestly formation,” Father Ahamefule said. “How did the early church do evangelization? It was one-on-one encounters. We are the early church of our own time.”

Father Ahamefule admitted that it is easier to talk about evangelization than do it. “It’s the ‘how’ where the change comes,” he said.

The priests in 2018 talked about how to revitalize their parishes in order to make evangelization stronger. That theme continued through 2019 and will again be the focus at this autumn’s convocation. Father Ahamefule said part of the discussion would be how they and their parishioners could be more united in the work of evangelization. “If we’re not united, the disunity becomes a roadblock,” he said. “We will talk about ways to encourage and empower the people of God in our work of evangelization.”

Marston challenges Mass-goers to find ways to share the power of the Mass with lapsed Catholics and others who don’t come to church. “The pastors have to be bold enough in their homilies to address what is central in our lives, and then we need to be emboldened to take that to others,” she said.

Marston argues that the need for faith and awe is built into our human DNA, and that when we are able to communicate how central and beautiful the Mass is, then more people will open themselves to it.

“People here are ripe for evangelization,” she said. “There are many reasons to be hopeful.”