It has become routine these days to here of multiple church closings in various dioceses throughout this country. The recent news comes from the Archdiocese of St. Paul – Minneapolis which is planning to close 21 parishes over the next three years. The plan is a bit ambiguous in that some of the closed parishes may actually remain open for some services as a “mission” of another parish. But they will no longer be full-service parishes with a priest and other essential services. Each “merged cluster” of parishes will have some say over its own fate and what buildings will be used and arrangements can be made. That is a relief to some of the older parishioners. But, I am sure that communities that try to keep two buildings up and running may soon discover that maintaining two or more sets of the the large and older buildings is very costly. If they continue to decline in membership, as it seems most of them will, some painful choices await them. (The Parish in the Photo at right is Holy Trinity in Syracuse, NY and it closed in Feb of this year along with 14 other parishes in that diocese).
One of my own frustrations with the closing of large numbers of parishes is that we do not do a better job of using these situations as a teaching moment. The usual approach is for media, secular and Catholic is to interview grief-stricken members of a closing parish and to ask them how they feel. Well, of course, they feel awful. Some are also angry at the diocese in question, and the bishop. The usual goal of these sorts of interviews is for us to feel bad with them. And there is much to regret. Some very old parishes with wonderful histories and beautiful buildings are being lost in large numbers.
But where is the assertive teaching about the need for evangelization, summoning fallen away catholics back to the sacraments, increased family size, and so forth? The “ain’t it awful” attitude doesn’t get us very far. We have some serious repenting to do as Catholics. It is so easy to blame “mean” bishops, arrogant chancery offices and so forth. Surely there is some blame to be had in these areas. But in the end this is about the numbers of the faithful. It is simple to say the priests should do something, but it is also a fact that shepherds don’t have sheep; sheep have sheep. And it is a simple fact that the sheep are not in the fold. Every survey agrees, only 27 – 30% of Catholics even bother to go to mass any more, much less support their parishes financially. We simply cannot continue to maintain our parishes and other entities with this decline of people in the pews. The faith has largely been set aside by most Catholics who still expect their parish to “be there” at important moments like wedding and funerals, baptisms and crises.
And for those who do remain faithful and attend each Sunday, (God bless them), there are also questions. How serious have they been about evangelizing as they saw their parishes growing empty? How did it get to this point? There are some demographic trends that many will point to that really don’t seem to excuse what we are experiencing. For example, there is “people have moved to the suburbs” argument. True. But are there still not homes in the city? There ARE some parishes that saw their neighborhoods replaced by office buildings, but these are rarer. The “they all moved to the suburbs” explanation does account for the low percentage of Mass attendance which seems to be the real culprit here, along with declining birth rates among Catholics. These are choices made by Catholics in droves and we are paying the price. If even 50% of Catholics were going to Mass most of these parishes would not be closing. This is a teachable moment and we all, clergy and people have a lot to repent for.
Indeed, I would like to propose that all of us who face the reality of only 27% of Catholic going to Mass have some soul-searching to do. As parishes close in waves, what repenting are we personally doing? Are we just blaming the clergy, or the liturgy? I assure you there is plenty of blame to go around. It seems to me that every parish, especially those that are getting very small, have some serious things to ponder. Let’s begin with the clergy and radiate out to the parishioners:
- How serious are dioceses about declining numbers? Our dropping attendance is shocking. What is the plan of any given diocese to address this?
- Are clergy and people being trained to address this problem?
- Does the diocese see the viability of parishes only in terms of money? Or do they look inside the numbers and toward the future?
- What discussions take place with the pastors of declining parishes?
- Is the pastor ever asked to account for declining numbers or asked to present a plan for parish renewal?
- Is the pastor merely rewarded for maintaining buildings and finances, or does the diocese also give him other priorities such as Church growth and involvement in the life of parishioners and communities?
- How serious is the diocese about training priests to be better evangelizers?
- How serious is the bishop in teaching his people, in times like these, about the necessity to be sober and serious regarding our steep decline?
- Does the flock ever hear from their bishop about the this matter except when he puts them on a Church closing list?
- Does the Bishop visit declining parishes to admonish and encourage them to evangelize and grow the parish?
- Do the faithful in a given diocese really even know serious the decline in numbers is? Have they been challenged on this?
- How does the Bishop evangelize? Does his flock see him reaching out to the fallen-away and unchurched? How?
- And what of the pastor?
- He is just in maintenance mode or does he really want to grow God’s Church?
- What is his plan to growthe Church?
- Has he ever considered studying various plans of evangelization to see what might work best in his parish?
- Is he engaing leaders in this central task?
- Does he ever talk to his people about the declining attendance and summon them to sobriety about it?
- Are his homilies well prepared and the liturgies beautiful so that, when people do bring a friend to Church, they can be proud to bring them?
- Is the Pastor praying (fasting?) for new members and growth?
- Is he asking others to do so?
- Does he seek to understand why his numbers might be decliningand why people don’t come to Church?
- Does he teach that missing Mass is a mortal sin? Does he explain why?
- Does he speak of the glory and the necessity of the sacraments so that his people see them as more than just rituals or rites of passage?
- Do his people understand how and why coming to Mass and confessing regularly are essential for them and their loved ones?
- Does he thereby inspire an urgency for the work of evangelization and help people to know that the eternal salvation of others may well depned on our work of evangelization?
- Do his people know that their own salvation may well depend on whether they have been serious about announcing Christ and growing the kingdom?
- How does the pastor evangelize? Do his people ever see him personally reach out the fallen away, the unchurched, and those who have been hurt by the Church? How?
- And what of the people in the pews?
- Have they been serious about summoning lost loved one back to Church, co-workers, the unchurched?
- Have they witnessed to their faith and personally invited people to discover the Lord in the liturgy and sacraments?
- Are they urgent and persistent in this work?
- And what of the “domestic church,” the family? Are the faithful willing to examine the low birth rate among Catholics and consider this has played a role in Church closings, the decline in vocations, the precipitous decline in Catholic schools, and so forth?
- Are Catholics willing to repent of this and consider that we may in fact, as a community, be contracepting and aborting ourselves right out of existence? (CARA Statistics show that the rate of baptisms per 1000 Catholics have dropped 75% since 1955).
- Are Catholics willing to consider more fulling embracing life and encouraging others to do so?
- Are Catholics striving to encourage marriage and family life? Without strong families, parishes are not strong. (CARA Statistics show that the rate of marriages per 1000 Catholics has dropped by 76% since 1955).
- Do we prize the larger families in our parish and support them spiritually and even, where necessary, financially?
- How supportive and encouraging are Catholics when the parish leaderships does summons them to evangelize?
- Are they willing to walk the streets and knock on doors, or go to the local mall and greet people in the Lord and invite them to God’s house?
- Would the average parishioner be willing to accept the goal and be accountable for bringing five new people to Church in the next six months?
- How serious are they about greeting new people who do come to Mass and helping them to find a role in the community?
- Or, it all this just up to “Father” and the “Evangelization Committee?”
- How faithful is the average Catholic in being at Mass every Sunday without fail?
- What example do Catholics give their children and other youth in this regard?
- How faithful are Catholic parents in teaching their children the faith? Are they as serious about attending to this as they are to making sure they qualify for academic scholarships or excel in sports?
- How serious are parents about preparing their children for sacraments and supporting religious education efforts in parishes?
- How financially supportive are Catholics of their parish and diocese? Does God get more from a Catholic than the movie rental agency or the local sports bar?
- Are the clergy and parishioners of declining parishes willing to try new things? Will they reach out to new ethnic and racial communities? Will they make necessary liturgical changes, and support the possible need to set aside personal preference and the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality?
- Does the Pastor and parish leadership see evangelization as job one? Or, is the parish just in maintenance mode?
- Are we going to be serious about this, or just watch parishes close and say,”Ain’t it awful!”
So, parish closings are sad but teachable moments. And also a time for some repentance and soul searching. In a rampantly secular time we have to be very serious about handing on our faith and inviting others to God’s house. Blaming others is not enough. What will I do about it? If we are not willing to take personal responsibility for growing our parishes, last one out, turn out the lights. There is a kind of judgment on us right now. And we have a decision to make. Will we preach, invite and summon others to the Catholic faith, or not? To preach and teach the faith, uncompromised, not watered down, to share it with joy and confidence is our only hope. By God’s grace our parishes can and will grow but God is going to do it through you. Not just your pastor or the person next you. God wants to do it through you.
How say you? My list is long, but I’ll bet you want to add to it. Comments are wide open for additions, distinctions and rebuttals.