Many of you are aware of the latest round or parish consolidations that were announced on June 1st. The mergers announced are due to a complex number of factors including shifts in Catholic population, a high density of parishes in a small area, declines in Mass attendance, Sacramental activity, the availability of priests to staff parishes and the condition of facilities.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker who writes the the blog, “Standing On My Head” penned an insightful articled entitled, “Closing Churches Closes Faith.” He states that the “churches were built by our ancestors who were much poorer than we are, but who had faith, knew how to work hard, and above all–were willing to make great sacrifices to build a worthy house of worship.” He quotes architect Michael Tamara (“Saving Catholic Culture from Destruction“). Tamara states that “Something deeply potent—and even slightly irrational to the modern mind—had to have been the driving force behind the postponement of personal comfort and social success long enough to establish a parish and build a worthy church.” The architect also notes that recently Rome has begun to express their concern about the “wisdom behind the endless cycles of consolidations and closings that have befallen many United States dioceses in recent decades.”
Nevertheless, Longenecker also states the obvious, that some churches “might” be worth saving but some definitely are not. Demographics do play a role – a hugh one. In an earlier assignment, I was Pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish and Administrator of St. Lucy (both in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia). When I arrived I could not help but notice that the combined debt of both parishes was approaching $2,000,000. My reaction was, and continues to be, “What $250 thousand wasn’t enough debt? Half a million dollars wasn’t enough? $1 million wasn’t enough?” It was ludicrous. Those parishes were wonderful places and the people with whom I shared the faith were terrific people. Nevertheless, the original mission of those places (to minister to the tens of thousands of Polish, German, Irish and Italian immigrants coming through Ellis Island and elsewhere) had been fulfilled – and successfully! Their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren were born, raised, educated – and left. This is what their elders had hoped for and had originally come to America for, to move up – and sometimes – out and away from the old neighborhood.
Tamara and Logenecker write that “real faith and enthusiasm are the qualities needed” to help in creatively thinking faith communities in areas where the Catholic demographic has changed. I look at the Archdiocese of Boston (whose situation mirrors the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in some respects). They underwent a massive reconfiguration in 2004 closing and consolidating numerous parishes. The rationale was not without merit. Nevertheless, Cardinal O’Malley learned some hard lessons from this process. Thus, the Boston Cardinal realized that structural problems still existed, he recommended a different approach. The new plan would not close churches and would be centered on evangelization and a new way of constructing parishes and would be well-staffed, financially sound and effective in their mission. For this purpose the pastoral plan groups parishes of the archdiocese into approximately 135 collaboratives. Each parish would maintain its name, church and buildings and finances but two to four churches would be managed in a collaborative headed by one priest, a pastoral council and a financial council.
THE KEY, according to O’Malley, is that these cooperatives will be responsible for coming up with plans to bring back lapsed Catholics. “They must refocus on outreach and evangelization,” O’Malley said. “We can’t use all of our resources and time just to serve the active Catholics in the community.”
That is why I continue to be enthusiastic about what’s happening at St. Monica and the vision that has been developed by our people. Is it working? Perhaps. 25 new families/parishioners have registered at St. Monica since January. We had 20 baptisms this time last year. We have had 15 this year.
Hopeful yes, but I guess we still have some praying and work to do.