No more audible gasps in church, please

by Chris Lowney

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Recent events in the Hartford Archdiocese underscore our church's profound challenges, yet also point the way to toward a better future.

Archbishop Leonard Blair recently announced a sweeping and painful reorganization: consolidating 212 churches down into 126. National Catholic Reporter said that Hartford's restructuring might be "the most massive effort" of consolidations that have wracked the Catholic Church over recent years, in Boston, New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and, unfortunately, plenty of other places.

The announcement came after two years of planning and analysis that apparently included lots of consultation and information-sharing (kudos to those responsible for that). As part of that process, one parish's congregants were briefed about the broader context. Since 1969, the number of Catholics in the archdiocese had declined by 69 percent; the number of priests had fallen by roughly two-thirds.

One parishioner told NCR that such statistics were greeted by an audible gasp in the church. "It's an unbelievable attrition," the parishioner said, "It was a real shock."

Her "shock" points to a first step on the long path to a revitalized Catholic Church. To their credit, Blair and his team seemed to have shared information transparently during the planning process (and I expect they will continue that commendably transparent style going forward). But that "audible gasp" suggests pretty clearly that parishioners had been pretty under-informed during the prior decades while these trends had been snowballing. By the time they became aware, it was far too late to take meaningful action to ameliorate the situation.

Consider that "audible gasp" as an indictment of sorts and a cry to do things differently from now on: parishioners should never be in a position to be shocked by news about the ongoing health of their own parishes and diocese.

Don't take that from me; take it from Pope Benedict XVI. Opening the pastoral convention of the Diocese of Rome in 2009, he proclaimed it "necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted. … This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as 'collaborators' of the clergy but truly recognized as 'co-responsible,' for the Church's being and action."

Those are powerful words, but we've yet to put them into action. One cannot be "responsible" for the "Church's being and action," for example, if ignorant of basic facts about what's going well or poorly. Imagine, for example, being "responsible" for a business without ready awareness of its financial performance.

Who knows why such information was not shared more widely within that archdiocese over the decades? Perhaps because well-meaning pastors or shepherds wanted to shield the flock from bad news, or didn't feel that parishioners would have had worthy solutions to offer about the predicament. No matter how well-meaning the motive, the lack of transparency with basic information smacks of what church leaders like the late Cardinal Francis George and Pope Francis have called an unhealthy "clericalism."

But that gets to a second, equally crucial point related to what we might call the "Benedict Principle of Co-Responsibility." Yes, pastors and shepherds need to create structures where parishioners can feel informed. But then parishioners have to step up to help lead the church forward. The notion of "co-responsibility" implies, well, responsible action and initiative to make things better, not passive acceptance or cynical complaints. It's not the priests' or bishops' problem; it's all our problem, and the solutions must therefore also come from all.

That will entail massive culture change in the way we think and behave as a church. Consider, for example, a few relevant findings from the highly respected research team at Georgetown University's the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate: Only 25 percent of parishioners "strongly agree" with the statement, "I am interested in becoming more involved in the ministry of my parish." Sorry, we will never thrive in the 21st century with such lackluster engagement.

But that lukewarm engagement may be partly because parishioners don't feel fully encouraged to become more involved. Less than half of parishioners in that same survey, for example, strongly agree that they feel invited and encouraged to participate in parish ministry; only a third strongly agree that they even would know how to do it, and only 20 percent feel they have a role in parish decision making.

None of the above is consistent with a "co-responsible" church. As argued in my book, Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church, we need good information sharing for starters, but we also need a community that is invited to step up and help lead, that wants to step up, and that knows how to step up.

If we can't make that change? Well, the Hartford Archdiocese did not rule out further consolidation in future years, and further consolidation surely will come if we cannot forge a truly "co-responsible" church in action. That's intended as no disrespect to our priestly ranks, at all. Rather, it's simple recognition of the facts. The priestly population is dwindling, even as our challenges are proliferating. What's more, our clergy's training, background, or inclination may not equip them with the entrepreneurial or professional skills needed to surmount every one of the widening array of challenges that are facing us, like financial travails, the puzzle of wielding social media effectively and figuring out how to engage young adults, for example.

Blair's quote in the slideshow of the archdiocese's website homepage puts our mission succinctly and well: "… bring as many people as possible into the Kingdom of God." Amen to that, archbishop. Now let's undertake the culture change that will enable us to bring that vision alive in the 21st century.

[Chris Lowney is author of Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church.]

A version of this story appeared in the June 30-July 13, 2017 print issue.

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