(NECN: Jack Thurston, Burlington, Vt.) - The faithful who came to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington, Vt. Thursday were praying for Pope Francis. But as the Catholics welcomed their new Holy Father, there was plenty of empty space in the pews.
"My churches in Vermont have lots of room to welcome our wonderful people," said Bishop Salvatore Matano of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.
The Diocese said it has seen a steady decline in Mass attendance in recent decades, about matching what a Pew Research Center study found nationally: that half of Catholics went to Mass weekly in the 1970s, but only a quarter did last year. To read that study, visit this website.
Burlington's Bishop said he hopes the new Pope and upcoming Easter observances will boost attendance.
"I always take these opportunities to welcome back home to the church those who may be estranged in any way," Matano said.
The Diocese said there are many reasons for the decline in attendance, including Vermont’s aging population and a challenging job market that influences many young people to leave the state after high school and college.
This trend does not seem to be isolated to the Catholic Church. A recent Gallup poll called Vermont the least religious state in the entire country, trailed closely by other New England states. In Vermont, fewer than 20 percent of survey participants called themselves "very religious." Click here for more on the Gallup findings.
Winooski, Vt. computer analyst Craig Hilliard told New England Cable News that he and most all of his friends just don't feel they need church to enjoy happy and productive lives.
"I'm not a church-goer; I'm not religious in the least," Hilliard said. "I don't believe in God, I believe in good. And I think there is something to be said for humanity and having society bring out the good nature in human beings."
University of Vermont history professor Dona Brown studies New England culture. Brown said the Northeast's reputation for liberal politics and tendency to not tell other people how to live their lives may sync up with its low level of religion.
"It exacerbates the very intense culture wars going on between North and South in this country," Brown said.
That Gallup survey found Mississippi is the most religious state in terms of people who defined themselves as "very religious."
At All Souls Interfaith Gathering in Shelburne, Vt., pastor Mary Abele said she has seen an increase in people attending her 6-year-old non-denominational center. Abele noted that many left more rigid churches.
"They're looking for something else," Abele told NECN. "They're looking for a way to feel spirit without being told how to worship."
At All Souls, Abele said the community finds a connection to the divine without dogma. Many embrace nature as a path to spirituality.
"People can take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and put together something that's really meaningful for them," Abele explained.
Abele said she knows demanding careers, chores, and activities like children's sports will always make it hard for some to go to church on the weekends. She predicted that making services relevant and accessible will continue to challenge places of worship all over the country.