For 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.