Lack of priests continues to close parishes, yet there is still no discussion

"It's very upsetting. It's kind of like a death," Emily Cassady told KCCI Channel 8 News out of Des Moines, Iowa. Cassady was talking about the closure of Assumption Parish in Churchville, Iowa, a rural community about 20 miles southeast of Des Moines.

Assumption Parish was established in 1855 and the first church built in 1859, but that ended after Masses Aug. 31. Assumption is now a shrine, a building available for Sunday Masses about once a month or for special occasions, such as weddings and funerals.

"The parish has experienced a declining membership over the years and three previous pastors had recommended it be closed," the official announcement from the Des Moines diocese says. Bishop Richard Pates "took into consideration the pastors' recommendations, the ability of the parish to be viable in faith development, and advice from his priest advisory group" and closed the parish, the announcement says.

Cassady, talking with the TV reporter, acknowledged that the parish was small; about 40 families, and about 50 elderly people came to Mass on Sunday. "We are a small church, a small parish, but we take care of each other," Cassady said.

"We're told we're good stewards that we take care of our building, that we take care of our financials, but we're just not big enough. I guess bigger is better," Cassady said.

The announcement from the diocese says that Pates "met with parishioners on several occasions to talk about options." Bigger, nearby parishes -- St. John the Apostle in Norwalk is 7.5 miles away, and Immaculate Conception in St. Mary's is just over 7 miles away -- would give former Assumption parishioners "access [to] programs that could foster growth in their relationship with God and community," the diocesan announcement said.

Why was an apparently financially stable, active, albeit small, parish closed?

"I always assumed that we were going to shut down because of the priest shortage. That's what we've always been told," Cassady said.

Yes, the priest shortage. Des Moines diocese has 81 parishes, according to the Official Catholic Directory for 2014. In the last 10 years, the diocese has closed only one other parish, so by national standards, Des Moines is doing pretty well. But the diocese does have 27 parishes without a resident pastor, which makes you wonder how many more parishes are in danger.

This story caught my eye one morning as I scanned the Internet looking for news about the church and topics that interest readers. I might have passed it by, except for what I was reading the night before.

NCR will mark its 50th anniversary in October. The Oct. 24-Nov. 6 issue will include a special anniversary edition that reviews 50 years of news. To prepare, I've been reading through bound volumes of back issues and thinking about the stories we've covered over the years.

The night before I saw the story about Assumption Parish, I was reading NCR Vol. 26 (October 1989 to October 1990). I found an account of the U.S. bishops' conference meeting in November 1989. The bishops were to vote on guidelines developed by the bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, "An Order for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest."

Bishop Emeritus William McManus of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., urged his fellow bishops to contemplate the implications of the document, which he said amounted to a de facto acceptance of priestless parishes and move away from the Mass as the center of parish life.

"Are we prepared to make a value judgment that it is better to have priestless Sundays than to ordain married men or women?" McManus asked.

With "all due respect to the Holy Father" (that would have been Pope John Paul II), McManus said, it's time to quit treating the topic of women's ordination and optional celibacy "as if they were some kind of ecclesial obscenity." He urged the bishops to abstain from voting on the document until the underling questions were thoroughly discussed.

Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., rose to speak in favor of the document, but he too called for a study of the deeper issues underlying the priest shortage. "We are a sacramental church," he said. "We cannot continue to accept the present trend."

The guidelines for priestless liturgies were approved 225 to 18, with one abstention.

Twenty-four years later and we are not a step closer to having the discussion McManus and Lucker advocated, and we're forced instead to contemplate priestless communities or shuttered parishes. Either way, the church is diminished, and all ecclesial authorities seem able to do is wring their hands and pray that more men answer the call to a celibate priesthood.

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