A friend of mine described the old neighborhood as “Catholic World.” It was the “End of the Line” in north Yonkers, New York, named for the last stop of the trolley car route up from Getty Square downtown. It’s where I grew up.
The neighborhood and its environs at one time had been Old Money. But by the 1950s and early 1960s — my time — it was a mix of second, third and fourth generation heirs of immigrants. They had come up from New York City and elsewhere looking for a better place to raise kids. Many had fought in the war. Most were Catholic. Serious Catholic.
The heart of the neighborhood was Christ the King Parish. Founded in 1927, Christ the King welcomed them all. The school they built a half-century ago served that oleo of ethnic roots that made up the American Catholic baby-boom generation.
Back in the day, the school playground — doubling as the parish parking lot — would be crammed on Saturday afternoon for confession; an absolute nut house for the five Masses the next day. Surveys estimated then that nearly 80 percent of Catholics were practicing. Every mother had her rosary beads in her purse, every father doffed his hat as he walked by the church, every kid knew the Baltimore Catechism answers.
It was Catholic World.
A big parish merger with church closings was announced for the Archdiocese of New York early in November. A total of 112 of the 368 parishes in the archdiocese will be involved in mergers and closings. Those 112 parishes will be merged into 55; 31 of those merged churches will be effectively closed by August.
It might be a news story, but it is not a new story by any means. Dioceses throughout the country have faced the same story. The Diocese of Pittsburgh, where I live now, went through what New York is facing today more than 20 years ago.
Changing demographics, declining number of priests, people fleeing the cities for the suburbs, the unraveling of traditional ethnic ties — they have all combined to change the face of Catholic America. No one wants it to happen. It’s facing the reality of the times. But that doesn’t make it any easier for those directly affected — the people in the pews of closing parishes.
So in New York there are already petitions, threats of legal action, warnings of apostasy. It’s the same story wherever it happens. A Pittsburgh closing was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. It was rejected.
When I read the story, I logged on quickly to see if Christ the King had survived. A few years back, the parish school had been closed. My school. But Christ the King was neither merged nor purged. This time around.
The New York Times noted that a major cause of the merger and church closings was declining Mass attendance. It reported that “only about 12 percent of the New York archdiocese’s 2.8 million Catholics regularly attended Sunday Mass, according to the archdiocese.”
We can have incisive discussions about the effect of secularism, materialism, atheism, but no “ism” prevents anyone from going to Mass. That’s a choice, not a mandate.
In the 1950s, Mass attendance rates stood at nearly 8 in 10. Today, in the Archdiocese of New York, it’s a little over 1 in 10. It’s not very much better anywhere else.
So the fundamental problem both in New York and everywhere else was summed up neatly by Walt Kelly’s famous 1971 “Pogo” cartoon: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Prayer, evangelization, catechesis. Then get them back to Mass. And confession.
Catholic World can’t survive in apathy. Even at the End of the Line.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.