Guest Columnist Demographic blues

An unfortunate incident took place for me after mass this morning. A man came up to me and said in a challenging way, “Are there any priests who will oppose the bishop for what he is doing about the parishes that closed?”

“Not this priest,” I said.

“Why don’t the priests oppose this bishop?” he asked me.

“Well for me, it is because I promised him obedience and respect the day of my ordination,” I said. His anger was already provoking my anger.

“That is (expletive deleted),” he said rather too fiercely, considering we were inside the church.

“No, that is spirituality. We have to respect and obey the bishop.”
“That is childish,” he said, “the Germans obeyed Hitler.”

The comparison of closing parishes and making a world war that included the holocaust stunned me a bit, I must admit.

“We don’t believe the Holy Spirit selected Hitler,” I said. “Our faith in the Church is different.”

Before I be accused of holding for the infallibility of bishops, I only want to make clear that I really do believe in their fallibility and have confessed that to some of them perhaps too vigorously.

The man’s anger had been contagious and I had fallen into a trap getting angry with him. One part of it was that I had just asked the people to accompany me to a protest Bishop Lennon was planning outside Cleveland’s Federal Building about the HHS mandate for contraception, chemical abortion and sterilization coverage in the insurance plans of Catholic institutions. In the crisis situation in which we find ourselves within society, Catholics need to unite behind their leadership if we hope to serve social justice.

The incivility of using a profanity in the church was another part of it for me. It was symptomatic for me of so much of the opposition to the bishop. People have accused the man of any number of evil motives. It seems that modern Catholics are less sensitive to issues about detraction and calumny than before.

This reflects the boorishness of our mass media and the generally dumbing down of social standards in our country, perhaps, but also reveals a moral issue. Accusing my bishop of being a thief is calumny, however, and it is voiced routinely by all sorts of people who should know better.

It is a strange circumstance that people who are advocating the ordination of women and whose parishes routinely took liberties with liturgical rubrics are now allied with very traditional ethnic people in their animus against the bishop.

What seems to unite such diverse groups is an un-Christian and better personal antipathy to the bishop and a sense of “owning” their particular parish. In the case of Cleveland, agitators from another city have come calling the bishop a liar and comparing him with caricatures of political bogey men like Richard Nixon. One very liberal congregation effectively has gone into schism, with its pastor receiving a de rigueur celebrity in the National Catholic Reporter as a “priest disobedient to my bishop.”

I can understand wounded feelings about church closings. My own parish has been merged and the church where I made most of my sacraments has been demolished. It is a terrible sadness to me to think of the elimination of what was for me the place I met the Lord. However, like any priest, I have had to measure pastoral resources to needs and have also resented the unevenness of the distribution of the same. What I cannot understand is a basic lack of charity toward anyone, but especially to our church leadership.

Would I have made the same choices on reconfiguration that my bishop did? I really don’t know. Perhaps not, but maybe that is why he is the bishop and I am a pastor. The buck stops at the chancery office, even for things over which a bishop has no control. One agitator said that concerns about the distribution of clergy were illegitimate because it was the fault of the bishop that women could not be ordained and thus take pastorates.

My anger at the man who accosted me trying to incite me to rebel against my bishop was not a good response. I should have said I understood his anger first of all. Then I should have told him that my own home parish had been actually razed to the ground. Perhaps after that, I could make a bridgehead and say that we owe it to people of different opinions to try to see their points of view, even if those people are bishops. Then I could have said something about the presence of God wherever the Church is, regardless of the church address.

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Lost in the vituperation and the “passion” about the closing of parishes are some very real issues about what parishes are about and how they relate to the Church as a whole. There are at least seven different aspects of the question that merit our considered reflection:

1. Reconfiguration is about stewardship of resources and personnel for the pastoral care of God’s people. There is something disproportionate about a parish with 3,000 families and another with 40 families both served by one priest. The demography of the rust belt is a fact that should not be ignored. I heard a priest in Rome talk about how Ireland would be better off with fewer dioceses because the change of population in rural areas and modern technology and transport have made for a revaluation of diocesan structures there. Shouldn’t there be readjustment of strategy and reapportionment of resources? Just look at the Congress. States have lost whole Congressional districts. Is the Church supposed to be immune to demography?

I am thinking about my section of the city of Cleveland, where we still have five parishes within a five mile radius. The area is not densely populated.

Abandoned houses are common. The zip code was the highest in foreclosure rates in the whole country. Many people have moved out to the suburbs or have gone to heaven. Even the local high school has been closed. Like most areas of the rust belt, Cleveland’s oldest urban areas have dramatically changed in terms of both the numbers of people and the percentage of Catholic population of the same. The bishop of Cleveland started a very difficult process that the secular media calls “downsizing” but that really has to do with a calculus of pastoral resources and geography in terms of a new urban landscape.

2. Some parishes, especially ethnic ones, which had been designed as non-territorial ministries to immigrants, have outlived their original purpose. One nearby parish here had basically become a chaplaincy to a social club of the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants who occasionally visited the “original” family church although they were registered in other parishes. Ethnic parishes are a pastoral means the Church uses for pastoral care of Christians, but once assimilation occurs, can actually have a kind of counter signification.

3. Many parishes were living off the capital saved by previous generations of Catholics and sustainability was an impending crisis. The group that remained was living an “après moi, le deluge” kind of life, cashing in the certificates of deposit and not thinking about tomorrow.

4. Participation in the diocese was very limited, and this included a failure to contribute materially to the broader mission of the Church. This was not just about unpaid assessments; it was an attitude of isolationism, some parts of it unconscious, but other parts conscious.

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5. The resources of a parish are resources of the whole Church. I think there should be more discussion about the principle that the money saved by a parish must always follow its parishioners. This is a principle from canon law, but I think that it does not recognize that the present parishioners are not the ones whose sacrifice was translated into savings. Recently money left by the closing of an ethnic parish located within a mile of two struggling neighbor parishes of the same ethnicity was transferred to a suburban parish because a number of parishioners formally registered there. The suburban parish was not an ethnic ministry. The parishioners were not first-generation immigrants. The closed congregation was not territorial, but the receiving parish really is territorial and has registered people who do not live within their territory.

Why was the money taken from the city to go to a place without financial difficulties? The resources of a parish are not some kind of inheritance or a dowry, but the means to an end: the greater glory of God and the effectiveness of His Church. An even bigger issue, tangential here,  is what to do about the disconnect between Church law which intends parishes to be territorial and practice that has people choosing membership in parishes where they do not live.

6. Why is there no comparison to what has happened to so-called mainline church congregations in the city? About a mile away from my parish is a big United Methodist church building with a for sale sign outside. Demography has changed for many different denominations, but it seems that the Catholics have more than their fair share of the headlines and the acrimony.

7. What about the failure of urban evangelization, especially as it has to do with racial and ethnic communities? Certainly this should be studied. It is a facile assumption to think that evangelization will fill the benches of the big ethnic churches whose sons and daughters have moved away.

There are many churches in the city. Is our pastoral plan the conversion of Christians of other denominations? As the son of a convert I would not be opposed to people coming to the fullness of faith, but shouldn’t our attention in the first place be to the un-churched? Still, there is a need to study how we grow as a Church. Are most of our adults who come for initiation the result of marriage to Catholics?

Perhaps one of the benefits of the church-closing crisis is that Catholic people can come to know and grapple with these issues. Catholic identity has suffered greatly in the last quarter century. It is as if we have to start anew with the ABCs of being a Catholic. This includes our catechetical disaster in which it is evident so many Catholics do not know the ABCs of our faith. 

But more important perhaps is our union in charity. That has suffered so much lately and we cannot underestimate its damage.

Our divisions are the fodder for the cameras and we end up opposing one another instead of being about the mission of the Church. The Compendium of Social Doctrine says that society depends on “civil friendship.” In our Church we ought to have much more, but we should start with civility.

In all things charity.

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