A changing landscape

Most American Catholics soon will have to make some adjustments. Some of us already are. I am referring to the mergers of parishes, or the closing of parishes, throughout the United States. 

These mergers and closings rarely occur without any emotion. Some have resulted in quite public displays of anger and resentment. It is understandable. Very often people are attached to their parishes, more so if a family has had a lifetime of connection with the parish, if it has been a family landmark for generations and if it has been the scene of major family events such as weddings, baptisms and funerals. 

Many Catholics have donated year after year to a parish, making sacrifices, maybe considerable sacrifices, to do so. 

Then, it seems to all end as the parish closes. 

Nothing written here can erase these feelings. However, it might help to realize that certain factors are bearing very heavily upon dioceses regarding the future of some parishes. 

An increasingly alarming fact is that fewer and fewer American Catholics are attending Mass regularly. This statistic applies across the country, admittedly varying from place to place and from age group to age group, but the bottom line is that regular Mass attendance now is not what is what as recently as 20 years ago. 

Parish churches that once filled on Sundays now host only a fraction of the number of worshippers compared with the past. It would not be so bad, possibly, if enough priests were available to celebrate Masses for smaller congregations. 

However, the number of priests is falling dramatically. A major concern for bishops is that the number of newly ordained is significantly not enough to replace the priests who are dying or forced to reduce their workloads due to aging or poor health. 

It is a real problem. Exasperated that his parish was reducing its Sunday Mass schedule, one Catholic angrily noted to me that the bishop had transferred the parish’s associate pastor, naming him a pastor elsewhere, without assigning another associate. “Why does not the bishop simply send him back?” this parishioner asked with some irritation. 

I replied that were this to occur, some priest would have to be named pastor in that other parish. Who? No one is available. It is that simple. The bishop is trying to serve all. 

With reduced numbers at Sunday Mass come reduced monetary contributions and donations of time for parish projects. Many older churches are costly to maintain, and few dioceses have surplus funds. Besides — and this is blunt but true — the obligation of dioceses isn’t to heat and to keep in repair churches attended by few, but rather to use resources to build the kingdom, to use what is available to meet the spiritual needs of as many as possible. 

Neighborhoods change in every city. Rural areas change. Once-thriving communities become ghost towns. Eastern and Midwestern cities especially have been hit in this respect. 

If there is a bright spot it is that the Church in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Phoenix and Dallas, for example, where not that long ago Catholics were as few as hen’s teeth, is booming. For example, in 1960 the Archdiocese of Atlanta counted 25,000 Catholics on its rolls. Today, it lists 900,000 Catholics. 

Granted, these positive numbers do nothing to relieve the distress of Catholics who see their beloved parishes close. It is hard. It does not help to be angry with bishops trying to cope with very clear realities. 

And, in the last analysis, being part of this or that parish is only a means to an end. Catholics are part of the universal Church, and their supreme worship is in the Mass, wherever it is celebrated. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.