The Parish Church in a Changeable Community: Some Basic Requirements for Survival

blog.2.1For my first assignment as a priest I was sent to a large parish located in a suburb just inside the Washington Beltway. At the time it was flourishing, with four well-attended masses each Sunday. The people there loved their parish and spoke with devotion of the former pastor who, though he had died a dozen years before, loomed large in the memories of both Church and neighborhood. He was from that generation of pastors who had an almost kingly status. He stood 6’4” and his physical stature was matched by his personality. He was so strong a leader and had such a booming voice that people swore you could hear him from outside the Church when he preached. Parishioners loved or feared him; city/county officials respected him and knew that little would be politically feasible without his support.

When I arrived, the congregation consisted mostly of older families headed by World War II veterans, many of them retired. They had worked at blue-collar and white-collar jobs, government jobs and industrial jobs at the nearby Navy Yard. They were proud and remembered the sacrifices it had taken to build the parish “after the War.” Indeed, the parish was one of those “factories” we used to build. The grammar school, a three-story solid brick structure, had once been filled with 1500 children. The church seated over a thousand and in the halcyon days of late 1950s and early 1960s the rectory housed five priests; the convent was built for 25 religious sisters and was full. Right next door was the high school, staffed by another religious order. In all, the parish stretched two blocks along the main street of that town. Thousands moved through its facilities each day.

But by the time I arrived in the late 1980s an era was ending. The demographics of the neighborhood had already begun to change in the early 1970s. A white (Caucasian), blue-collar community became steadily black (African-American) and blue-collar. Many longtime parishioners began to locate south of the Washington Beltway into southern Prince George’s County and northern Charles County. Yet through the 1980s, even though they moved farther and farther away, older parishioners and even their children (now adults with families of their own) remained intensely loyal to the parish. They often drove past several other parishes to come back to the family parish. When I arrived in the late 1980s, the neighborhood was 90% African-American but the parish was 85% white.

I learned over the years that when a parish starts to rely on “commuter” parishioners instead of those who actually live within its boundaries, two things happen. First, necessary changes to reach new neighbors are resisted. Second, attendance erodes as older members die. And while the children of the founding families may still have some loyalty to the parish, it tends to fade when the matriarch or patriarch dies; and the loyalty is seldom shared by the grandchildren.

Add to all this the fact that during the 1970s and 1980s large numbers of Catholics fell away from the practice of the faith. With each passing year the numbers dropped significantly. By 1995 the average Sunday attendance had fallen below 1000 and the downward trend continued from there; today 400 is typical.

The scenario above has been repeated in countless congregations throughout the country, especially in the Northeast and Midwest where demographic shifts have been seismic.

Demographic shifts are generally not something that parishes can control. However, there are internal issues that can help or harm, especially when the issue is not depopulation but rather changing ethnicity or race in the neighborhood.

  1. Avoid merely lamenting the passage of the “good old days.” Scripture says, “For here we have no lasting city” (Heb 13:14). Change is part of life. The parish may once have been Polish, or Italian, or black, or white, but now it is changing. One thing, however, has not changed: there are still human beings who need to hear the Gospel and be saved. No less than in the past, we need to go out and meet our new neighbors, welcome them, and proclaim the primordial call: Come to Jesus.
  2. Catechesis is critical. Most Catholics have little instruction that the entire world is divided up into parishes. Every parish has a pastor and a territory. Since there is only once Church, the Pastor (together with his parish to help) is the shepherd of every human person within those boundaries: Catholic or Protestant, Christian, Muslim, Jew, or atheist. The parish has a responsibility to connect with every man, woman and child in their boundaries and invite them to know Christ, through his Word, Sacraments and his Body the Church.
  3. Connecting with actual neighbors is crucial. In my own parish, due to demographic shifts involving race, we became very disconnected from our neighborhood. Most parishioners were “commuting.” Our actual neighbors knew little about us and we knew little about them. In order to try to address that, twenty teams of us went out to meet our neighbors and listen to them. It meant reaching across racial divides and generation gaps (most of the neighbors were young, single adults). Older African-Americans met with younger, single white neighbors and invited them to come and see our parish. One thing we learned was that our Mass schedule was not convenient for many of our new neighbors. In response, we added a Sunday evening Mass, which has become very popular and is growing. In so doing, we showed our neighbors that we heard their concerns and cared about them.
  4. Challenges are not always bad; they can help people and parishes gain strength. I have seen parishes, including my own, rise to the challenges. We grew stronger in witness and we reached people we might never have reached had we not been called out our comfort zone. I know of one parish in nearby Maryland that became quite empty and sleepy when demographic change swept away many of its original members (blue-collar, ethnic whites). But today it is a bursting at the seams; there is standing room only at the main Sunday Masses and hundreds of children attend Sunday school. Parishes have lifecycles if they are willing to adapt, retool, reach out and welcome new members, speak new languages, and listen to the needs of new neighbors.
  5. Organic change and growth is usually best. While parishes should not be overly resistant to change, it does not follow that radical change is healthy either. Adding new things that reach new people and groups need not mean neglecting those who have been the bread and butter of the parish. Respecting those who have loyally attended over the years is important. People matter, not just numbers. In my own parish, adding a new Sunday evening Mass has meant that the liturgical format at our principal Mass can continue as well.
  6. Continuing to rely on “commuter parishioners” and niche marketing alone is not healthy. The genius of Catholicism, and its mainstay, has been geographically based parishes that minister to and are responsible for their neighbors. Some parishes can survive for a time on folks who have moved away but come back each Sunday, but they are living on the fumes of a receding past; I have never seen this model work for more than 15 – 20 years. Other parishes seek to survive through niche marketing; some examples of this are offering special forms of the Mass such as Latin, or Gospel Music, or certain special language or ethnic outreach. Here, too, such things seldom last and cannot survive personnel changes or further demographic shifts. The prevailing model has been and continues to be that parishes must be connected to neighborhoods. Since human beings have bodies, proximity matters. Getting to a distant parish becomes problematic over time and is affected by things like weather, age, gas prices, and the general hurried pace of modern life. There may always be some who willingly drive past five other parishes in order to come to their favorite one (with a liturgy or pastor they like), but in general this sort of model cannot sustain parishes for long.

I know that posts like this provoke controversy. People and priests get very attached to particular parishes and formats and to what is familiar. But after forty years of working in parishes as choir director, organist, seminarian, priest, and pastor, I can say that all of them have changed in profound ways over the decades. I have seldom found a parish locked in commuter mode or niche marketing that remains strong and healthy for long without deep connections to their actual neighbors.

It is true that certain parishes (e.g., shrines, or those in downtown settings with few Catholic residents) may have a stable focus or need to do specific things to attract congregations. But for most parishes the meat and potatoes is going to have to be the people who actually live in the area. They are, after all, the people a parish is supposed to reach. When a parish prefers to reach other people, or despairs of reaching its actual neighbors, it strays from the will of Christ, who bids us to go unto all people and nations and make disciples. And if a parish strays from its job as Christ has set it forth, can it expect to be blessed? Well, you decide.

I suspect that some of the comments to this post will be ones that defend a particular scenario that is at variance with the “neighborhood model.” You are free to do so, but at least factor in the traditional stance of the Church: divide the world into territorial parishes and ask each parish to tend to its particular vineyard first. Does your parish meet that goal? Even if you are from a “national parish” (which is rare today), the mandate to go into the whole world, starting at our front door, cannot be set aside. The Church should never be a “strange building” in a neighborhood. It is not an island set apart. Rather, it is an oasis in the desert of every neighborhood, deeply connected to its neighbors and their salvation.

15 Replies to “The Parish Church in a Changeable Community: Some Basic Requirements for Survival”

  1. …and don’t forget: families are having fewer children these days: 2 instead of 5. This greatly reduces the number of persons sitting in the pews of any church.

  2. I work in a distribution retail/wholesale industry where product is ordered and delivered to customers. In order to sustain profits (maximize income/minimize expense) each store draws a 5 mile circle around it’s location. All customers that fall within that circle are targeted for growth. They are easier to service and cost less to keep happy. While we are talking about souls, isn’t this the same concept?

  3. Msgr. Pope,
    As I visit my old neighborhood parish in Detroit, I have observed the trend you describe in this post. My comment to my family members and catholic friends has always been my observation that I still see “a lot of people the neighborhood”. Yes, as you describe, these are new people, new families, poor families, immigrant families, but they are still human beings in search of God. I think it might be a good time to rethink the way our parishes minister to their assigned communities. As you say, the population might change in a particular parish, but the mission of the Church does not. God Bless! 4

  4. I struggle with the relevancy of geography based parishes. Where I live (suburbs) I don’t know any of my neighbors even after 8 years living in my house. It has become a transition neighborhood after 2 decades of government relocation projects. So new people come and go all the time. Even if I went to the local parish I wouldn’t know anyone there. When I used to go there it was dominated by elderly parishioners protecting their little fiefdoms. I found this model duplicated at parishes all around me. I found a parish in the city that is like the one described in this article, but the commute is too long to be sustainable for us to be really involved. We did finally find one closer to our house (though farther away than three or four other parishes) that is more active and have been working on joining. Maybe all these parishes are failing to connect to the neighborhood and that’s why I have had so much trouble at them. Maybe the lack of community in my neighborhood (and many in my area) has made the geographic parish model untenable. I don’t know the answer.

    1. But niche/commuter system isn’t working either and has the problems you describe, often in an even stronger way. I think the territorial parish system is what we need to make work better. THe local parishes you describe sound like they have some of the malfunction I describe by failing to reach out and listen to their natural clientele

  5. The faithful will travel for orthodoxy. That’s easily apparent wherever the EF is allowed. The FSSP in LA have numerous families regularly travelling more than hour to there, despite not having a permanent home yet.

    I requested my territorial pastor to allow a celebration of the Extraordinary Form in a time the church building is otherwise not used in an evening while offering to personally take care of every detail, from the celebrant (FSSP, invited into the archdiocese to create an extra-territorial apostolate), to the choir to the servers offering the the collection. He refused outright, initially saying that he didn’t think going back in time was the answer. After some back and forth, I was offered various excuses on and genuinely sympathize with how overworked he claims to be… but he would not yield, despite the contention that he was losing parishioners and declining to address the latent demand for the EF and offering something no other parish closer than the FSSP apostolate an hour away does… except the SSPX… and worse.

    For background, I’m the President of the parish conference for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, not just a cantankerous layman making an unreasonable demand from the pews without offering any effort. Drawn to its classic architecture that offered tradition combined with modern comforts (AC, etc), I deliberately bought a house very close to this parish (walking distance) well before I knew anything about the Extraordinary Form (though once I saw it for my owns in a neighboring diocesan parish that offered it, I was hooked). It’s a beautiful late 50’s construction in classic basilica form with transept and side altars and retains a marble altar rail (never used, unfortunately).

    I prayed for his heart to open… but I find myself increasingly drawn to the FSSP and increasingly desire to relocate towards that apostolate, which is booming with young families, orthodoxy and solid Catholic liturgy and catechesis, and a desire to go where I’m wanted.

    1. Sorry for your negative experience with the local clergy. However, this is a bigger issue than the TLM, the attendees of which constitute a very tiny number of Catholics (less than one percent in most dioceses). Also, even with the TLM the experience is uneven. Here in DC we had a parish in Bowie that started the TLM about 10 years ago, but the numbers were discouraging since the traditional Catholics were not as you say “willing to travel for orthodoxy.” (By the way not all OF masses lack orthodoxy so I would prefer you say that they are willing to travel for tradition). The Mass was eventually discontinued and it was deemed that having the TLM in Montgomery County, in the city and in Southern Maryland pretty much met the need, though some of our priests (including me) offer the TLM for special feast etc throughout the year. At another parish in Montgomery CO the TLM was offered for several years but in that case the priest was eventually transferred and the new pastor was not able to offer the old rite (knowledge of Latin etc.) Thus I would argue that the TLM is not an exception generally speaking to the patterns I set forth in this article. Specialize liturgies are generally not going to sustain a parish for long. People do weary of travel, and clergy and other needed people move on. As far as I know the FSSP is also strategic in opening parishes since there is an upper limit in interest currently in interest in the TLM.

  6. As a pastor of two parishes, I face a rather different reality. My parish is primarily made up of commuters, for a simple reason. We don’t have enough people living here to sustain a parish, but we need to provide the sacraments. One of my parishes is the only parish in the county. The other one covers an equal territory. Even our public schools only have about 50-60 students in a grade. Parishioners often drive upwards of 30-40 miles to attend church on a Sunday…

    We only survive because there are enough families who drive in to come back to their family homestead. Our people are good, and give well, but there simply aren’t enough of them to provide what’s needed. We run on a shoestring budget where I, as the pastor am the only paid staff, and what few volunteers we have are wonderful, running bingos and other fundraisers to keep the lights on.

    Articles like this make me wonder if there is any hope for parishes like mine. We are solidly territorial, but what does one do in a territorial system, when there simply aren’t enough people, Catholic or otherwise, living in one’s territory?

    1. I know that at the diocesan level there was some attempt to structure dioceses so that they would be viable and for that reason some dioceses have strange shapes that try to include at least some urban centers where possible. It would seem that not all parishes have the same favor. I suppose, in your situation (as I say in the article) that where not enough people actually live, the parish may need some sort of draw, but other things being equal, it would need to be a pretty big draw that was quite stable to attract enough people and keep them over the years. In city areas where homes were replaced by office buildings one of two things happen, the parish niche markets (a fragile system if expertise is required that may pass at the death or movement of key people) or the parish closes. If all you can do is niche market, then that it all you can do. Such a parish would not fall under the indictment of ingoring the Lord’s mandate to evangelize. You can’t evangelize the people in the boundary if they are not there.

  7. Thank you for this perspective. We fled our neighborhood parish after 6 years of active membership because of unorthodox clergy. It was a hard choice, as we felt like we “should” stay at our neighborhood parish, but we have little kids who need proper formation, and we couldn’t deal with a pastor who was altering the creed, putting forward bizarre teachings about marriage, etc. It was too much. I know so many lay people who are doing the same thing. What else can we realistcally do?

  8. Dear Msgr Pope,

    Thank you for your daily messages. Each hits home whether they offer comfort or the thorn. I only wish I could be in your parish. But, as you say, they’d probably send you elsewhere. Again, thanks for your diligence in seeking the Word of God and sending His message to us. All the best!

  9. As a convert, I am constantly impressed with the wisdom of Christ’s Church on Earth. Having a parish responsible for the souls in it’s territory makes a great deal of sense. Who else would have that responsibility? The problem of Catholics church shopping, stems I suspect, from the trend of Protestants church shopping. Always on the look out for the best sermons, or youth programming, or whatever. That being said, I attended a parish for several years 12 miles from my home when others were closer. Part of the reason for that is I felt this parish had priests and parishioners who were serious about being Catholic. Unfortunately not all of the parishes near me gave that impression. For example, at one parish the priest was without a deacon or an MC. When the time came to prepare the altar, he was standing in front with a basket collecting offerings of children while a woman was laying out the altar. That just didn’t seem right. She even poured the wine from a larger container into the chalices. I attended another parish where in 2010 the priest had a list of unfair things, on the 3rd Sunday in Advent. It was unfair Mary had to travel so far 9 months pregnant. It was unfair unborn babies are aborted without a chance to live. It was unfair people lost their jobs or homes due to no fault of their own. And it was unfair that gays couldn’t serve openly in the military. I had just one more Sunday there before I moved, but his list wasn’t right.

  10. I like the idea of adding an additional Mass to address the needs of new groups of parishioners. In my parish, I get the impression that the liturgy of every Mass is fashioned in an attempt to be all things to all people. I think one Mass should be traditional, another more contemporary. Everyone needs to feel at home in the parish but we do not all share the same history or culture within our Church. A person can feel like quite an outsider in his or her own parish when dealing with ever-changing aspects of the liturgy. Our new priest and deacon insist on us responding “amen” to their assertions, and I feel like I’m in a protestant church. New words and songs are being added to the Consecration. Images are being displayed overhead during the Mass that make me wonder why the Tabernacle was ever moved to the side, only to be replaced by a slideshow. Its all well and good to try to bring new people in, but I wish some thought would be given to not driving the old people out.

  11. Fr Michael White, author of “Rebuilt” is the Pastor of Church of the Nativity in suburban MD. I needed to get to Mass one Sunday and the only 5pm Mass was there. I thought I had entered a rock concert. Lights wer e dimmed and there was a spotlight on the “Band” that was “performing” at the Mass. There were incredible distractions throughout. I felt so offended that I felt like I had witnessed a sacriledge. Worship… Of whom? And yet, this IS my neighborhood parish! Sigh….

    1. The additional problem I have with the rebuilt stuff is that it is too focused on the personality of the pastor. As for your other point, please do not absolutize my point. There are going to be times when the neighborhood parish is not the best choice for you. My point is more to parishes and pastors to seek to know their neighbors and territory, listen and effectively preach the gospel to them. This will usially involve the use of legitimate options, times Schedules, devotions etc that make sense there.

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