It was recently announced that a substantial number of Catholic parishes will be closing in Connecticut. This is just the latest in a national trend that is likely to affect the diocese where you live, especially in the north. I’d like to offer some rather quick thoughts and then ponder what I think is the root cause for our decline.
Bishops don’t close parishes, people do. While it may be juridically true that bishops formally certify or give recognition to the opening, closing, and merging of parishes, it is ultimately God’s people who create or withdraw the need for a parish. The hard truth is that Catholics are contracepting and aborting in large numbers, thus depleting our ranks. Further, in most urban areas of the northeast, barely 15% of Catholics attend Mass regularly. In comparison, during the first half of the 20th century, when many of the parishes being closed today were being built, nearly 85% of Catholics attended Mass regularly. It is unrealistic for Catholics to expect that parishes should not be closed in significant numbers when there is so little attendance and concomitant support.
Some point out that large numbers of Catholics have left the Northeast and headed south and west. That helps to explain why many parishes in the south and southwest are growing (even booming), but it does not mean that the overall population of the Northeast has dropped dramatically. To some degree, there has been a failure to evangelize, but the deepest wounds are in the decline of Mass attendance and our failure to hand on the faith. We are currently burying the last generation to be taught that Sunday Mass was an obligation to be met under pain of mortal sin.
There is shared responsibility. It is easy to be angry at bishops and priests when parishes must be closed. Years of poor catechesis, a lack of effective preaching, and poorly celebrated liturgies have taken their toll and the clergy bear the first responsibility in this. However, dissent and division among the faithful and a drifting from the practice of the faith are also big factors. Many priest who do preach firmly and insist on clear doctrine are made to pay dearly.
At the end of day, the clergy cannot take full responsibility for the problem, nor can they address it alone. Why? Because shepherds don’t have sheep, sheep have sheep. Evangelization cannot be just a problem for the rectory; it is ultimately a family problem. Parents and grandparents must do more to summon their children home and witness the power of the liturgy and sacraments to transform.
Many blame the liturgy for the low attendance. While the liturgy as commonly celebrated today can seem bland and uninspiring, and much modern Church music “banal” (as the Pope recently remarked), the proposed solutions are bewildering in number and even where implemented attract only small numbers. For example, some have cheered the reintroduction of the Traditional Latin Mass, a form of the Mass that I happen to love. However, I don’t know of a single diocese in this country in which the number of Catholics attending that form accounts for more than 1% of all Mass attendees. Thus, the problem seems deeper than the external forms.
The heart of the problem is an overall malaise. There is little urgency; few seem to feel the need for the faith, the Church, the sacraments, or the Word of God. In my opinion, a steady diet of universalism (the unbiblical notion that all or the vast majority of people will be saved, no matter what) inside the Church, and a steady diet of pluralism and relativism outside the Church have played the largest role in the problem. There’s no real problem seen, no hurry, no need for what we offer. At best we are just one product on the shelf of a boutique dedicated to the non-essential niceties that people dabble in if they have the time. The common view in our culture is that religion is a nice little way of accessorizing your life, but otherwise, who cares?
Given what I think is the root cause, how should we begin to stop the steady erosion of the practice of Catholic faith? I would agree with Dr. Ralph Martin that the first step must be to revive a more biblical vision of urgency regarding salvation. Just because many people—even among the clergy—say that there isn’t a problem doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.
Jesus was far more sober in assessing the situation. He devoted many parables and warnings to our need to attend to the salvation He offers. There are the sheep and the goats, those on the right and those on the left, the wise virgins and the foolish ones, those ready for the master’s return and those who are not, those who will hear, “Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” and those who will hear, “Depart from me. I know you not.” Jesus noted that the road to damnation was wide and many were on it, and “only a few” were on the narrow road to salvation (Matt 7:13-14).
But just try to tell any of this to most people today and see what kind of response you get. My sense is that urgency is at an all-time low. Yet biblically, directly from Jesus Himself, it is clear that the likelihood of being saved is greatly reduced when one does not repent regularly and walk in the faith actively, including a heavy dose of Scripture and frequent reception of the sacraments.
Yet few people speak this way today. Many dismiss such speech as “fear-based” argument. The fact is, however, that some things should be feared, including our tendency to be hard-hearted and hard-headed, to prefer passing things and error to eternal truths. Running about in a panic is not helpful; we need sober acceptance of our vital need for the sacraments, the proclaimed Word, holy fellowship, and the transformative power of the liturgy.
Until this sober appreciation is recovered by many and demonstrated by the few of us who remain, the steady erosion seems likely to continue. Church closings may be “coming soon to a neighborhood near you.” It is sad to lose buildings, many of them works of art, but it is even sadder to ponder the human loss that the empty buildings represent.