A recent NCR feature article about the skilled researchers at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University discussed changing demographics in U.S. Catholicism that are affecting church mergers and closures.
Written by a respected colleague, Tom Roberts, the article gave me food for thought since I have actively supported many parishioners in the Northeast and Midwest who worked -- sometimes successfully and sometimes not -- to preserve their parish homes via canonical appeals to Rome.
Among other things, the folks at CARA rightly point out that enhanced media attention to church closings in the Northeast and Midwest can give the impression that the Catholicism is on the downswing, when in fact, many large new Catholic churches are being built in the South and West.
Plus, they say, the priest shortage is basically here to stay since the 1960s boom of priests was an aberration, and the number of ordinations -- while definitely reduced from earlier times -- has been essentially steady for 30 years. Even though the number of U.S. Catholics has increased from 48.5 million in 1965 to about 80 million today, CARA finds that the widening priest-parishioner gap is being addressed by building bigger churches and using a greatly expanded pool of lay ministers and permanent deacons.
All of these perfectly valid sociological data points could easily leave one with the impression the church is vibrant and growing where megaparishes are normative in the South and West. But in the Northeast and Midwest -- where some Catholics still think smaller parishes have value -- not so much. While the CARA folks aren't saying it in these exact words, it is pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that when it comes to priest availability and megachurches, folks, it is what it is.
In other words, get used to it.
Yet I don't find sociological data points very helpful when it comes to evaluating whether current trends are helping or hindering Catholics in becoming deeply committed members of faith communities centered on the mission of Jesus.
What is missing in the sociological analysis is the power and meaning of Christian community.
What does closing a vital, solvent parish do to believers who have journeyed together over many years in good times and in bad? What does it mean to urban Catholic communities -- formed in the social gospel -- who have found fulfillment in serving the needy in their neighborhoods?
I can tell you. It disillusions them very, very much.
Many such Catholics either join other denominations or just stop going to church. And you don't have to take my word for it.
A 2003 study by the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development (CPPCD) found that parishes that stayed open with creative pastoring strategies were far less likely to lose members than parishes that were merged and closed. More than 40 percent of merged parishes (where one church closes) decreased in size (number of households), whereas just 14 percent of parishes that were linked, shared a pastor or assigned a non-priest parish director reported a decrease in size.
Further, parishes assigned to a non-priest administrator/director were most likely to experience an increase in the number of households.
I want to challenge church leaders to update the CPPCD study, now that hundreds more parishes have closed in the Northeast and Midwest.
Does anyone care what happened to these displaced Catholics?
Shouldn't we care?
Another thing that has never yet been studied but should be, is the impact on poor neighborhoods when vital, solvent (and, yes, smaller) Catholic parishes are forced to pull up stakes despite decades long ministries to the marginalized. For example, all 50 parishes forced to close in the Cleveland diocese in 2009 were situated in poor urban areas or inner-ring suburbs of Cleveland, Akron and Lorain. While perhaps 15-20 percent of those parishes needed to close, the majority did not.
According to the bishop, too many were too small (under 500 people) to justify continuing in existence, regardless of the vibrant, solvent communities that worshipped there. And regardless of their effective outreach to needy neighbors. While 12 of these parishes eventually won canonical appeals and were reopened, the victories came 3 years later, necessitating a lengthy rebuilding process that would have been unnecessary if they hadn't been forced to close in the first place.
And Cleveland is just one example. Similar downsizing processes are under way in the archdioceses of New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston and elsewhere.
If you are wondering what the power and strength of a faith community might look like, consider the example of folks at St. Francis Xavier Parish in the Boston archdiocese. They have been in continual vigil to keep their parish open for more than 11 years.
Why can't we find a way to work with this incredible energy and love for Catholic parish life rather than oppose it?
Too many church officials are dismantling vibrant faith communities because they want a priest in every parish. They choose expediency over creativity in finding ways to keep vital, solvent -- and yes, smaller -- parish communities together rather than merge them out of existence. So they shortsightedly shrink the number of parishes to fit the number of priests.
Since we are gifted with an abundance of church vocations in the form of lay ecclesial ministers and permanent deacons, why aren't we considering more creative ways of keeping our faith communities together?
Megaparishes just don't do it for me when it comes to building supportive, ministering communities "where everyone knows your name." (Ok, I'm dating myself.) I'm sure it is possible -- but how many megaparishes are willing to relocate and become an ongoing permanent presence in the inner city?
To abandon viable, traditional Catholic parishes that frequently stabilize poor neighborhoods just doesn't seem like something Jesus would do.
Not to mention Pope Francis, who once advised priests to rent a garage if necessary and recruit laypeople to minister to needy people far away from church.
When will our bishops follow the pope?
[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]
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