According to the Catholic News Service (HERE), The Milwaukee Archdiocese will close or consolidate 103 of its 203 parishes through 2020. A brief trip to the Archdiocesan website shows no mention of this at all. Indeed, I had to dig a bit to find this astonishing fact. Have Church closings become so common as to be unremarkable?
What are we to make of this and what can we learn? According to the article, Archdiocesan officials pointed to three principal factors that have and are leading to these closings:
•The number of priest retirements will exceed ordinations, resulting in a projected 40 percent reduction in the number of priests serving in parish ministry.
•The costs of operating parishes and funding ministries are escalating rapidly and parishes can gain economies of scale by collaborating with other parishes.
•The mission of the church can be carried out more effectively by combining efforts and sharing resources.
It is unclear in the article whether all (or any) of these parishes will be closed and torn down, or if they will become, what we used to call “missions” of another parish and what many like to call today, “clusters.”
Respectful of the Archdiocesan statement, I would like to propose that there are more factors that have led to this day than what they state, and that we can and must see this as a teaching moment, and a call to repentance for all of us in the Church.
The fact is, these Churches were once needed and full. One may want to point to demographic shifts. It is possible that, due to a loss of industry, the overall population of Milwaukee has dropped. There has been a slight drop, from 741,000 in 1960 to the 594,000 of today. But this is not the 50% loss reflected by the parish closings. Others argue that the ethnic subdivisions that caused the formation of many of these parishes are now gone. Perhaps, but again, the closing parishes were once full of human beings, whatever their ethnicity. The closing parishes were once going concerns. Now they are not.
There is just simply no avoiding the fact that, nationwide, only 25-27% of Catholics go to Mass. These numbers, though stable in the last ten years or so are far lower than the 75-80% attendance in the 1950s and before. Family sizes, birthrates etc. are also dreadfully low among Catholics.
Financially, Catholics give 0nly 1-2% of their income to the parish. This number compares poorly with most Protestant denominations in which Biblical tithing is more of a tradition.
Here then is the teaching point: we cannot sustain the Church in its present form with such poor attendance, poor participation and small monetary support.
There will surely be the predictable venom directed at the Church hierarchy by some Catholics, “How dare the bishop close our Church.” But again it is a clear truth that parishes need people to survive. A parish is not a building, it is the people untied with their pastors and bishops.
One may also ask the parishes that will be closed or clustered, a few questions, and these questions teach, even as they ask:
1. When did you start to notice a significant decline in membership?
2. What response was made to that decline?
3. Did the pastor and people work to evangelize?
4. Were drifting members ever contacted and encouraged to return?
5. How did the older members of the congregation fail to hand on the faith effectively to their children?
6. How did the Pastor and catechetical staff fail to hand on the faith effectively to the next generation?
7. What sort of financial plan was developed to secure the Parish’s ability to pay its bills?
8. When was the last time there was a vocation from this parish?
9. What is done to foster vocations?
10. Has the parish carefully maintained its buildings, or are they in disrepair?
11. How open is the parish to the wider community in which it exists?
12. Has the parish simply depended on the Archdiocese for vocations and monetary shortfalls or has it been carrying its load?
13. Did the pastor ever really level with his people as to how critical the problems were becoming in both the parish and the Diocese?
14. How did things get this bad?
Some years ago I was sent to a parish where the numbers had been declining. The school had just been closed. And while we were not in critical condition, a few more years of numbers like we had, would surely lead to the “Last one out, please turn out the lights” scenario.
I simply went to the pulpit and reminded the parishioners, “This is your parish and you will decide whether it remains into the future.” I presented the numbers, showed how they had dropped over the years. I showed the budget shortfall and indicated that, if things did not improve by midyear, we’d have to look for cuts in services etc. I also preached on biblical tithing and finally reminded them again, “This is your parish. You will decide its future.”
To their credit they responded very well. The collection came right up and we worked together to develop an evangelization plan. Attendance was up by 20% in two years. And while occasional reminders were needed, and certain bumps in the road did occur, things started going in the right direction.
It was a teaching moment and the people of God responded well. Thank God too, all these efforts took place before the parish reached critical condition and there was no synergy to effect real change.
I do not know all the details of the Milwaukee situation and I do not presuppose that the none of the efforts I mention here were untried. But all of us have to sober up and realize that business as usual isn’t going to cut it. The Catholic Church in America, with certain local exceptions, is in a real downsize mode and this has happened on our watch. We share a collective responsibility for the decline of our Church, clergy and people alike.
Arguing about whose most to blame or what specifically is the one root cause is just another distraction. The fact is, most polls show that the vast majority of Catholics who have left, or are away from the Church, did not leave over matters of doctrine, moral teachings, or liturgy. The fact is they just drifted.
We can either keep closing parishes and do the blame thing or we can get to work. If every church-going Catholic would see it as a duty to bring one soul (just one) back to God’s house this year, our numbers could double just that quickly.
It’s time, far passed time, to get to work.