What Pope Francis should know about parish closings when he travels to New York and Philadelphia

pope-francisjpg-78988a47f1d9b1c8As Pope Francis travels to the United States in just a few weeks, there are a few things he should know, or rather, a few people he should meet in order to understand the suffering and loss caused by parish closures and mergers in the United States, but especially in New York and Philadelphia where he has planned stops.

May he have a chance to listen to:

 Joan Romanelli of St. Elizabeth of Hungary parish on East 83th Street who tearfully hugged her pastor after the final Mass at her parish of 35 years on July 31, 2015.  She is heartbroken.  “I’m in denial. When I wake up Sunday morning, I will no longer have this place to come to,” said Ms. Romanelli.

Twelve year old Ian Kurz of Our Lady of Peace Church on East 62nd Street who is praying for a miracle that will OLP all night vigilkeep his Church from being merged.   The OLP parishioners, in faith, proclaim, “This is our body” and held an all-night vigil prior to the “final rites” Mass held on July 31, 2015.

Patty Rodriguez of Our Lady Queen of Angels Parish which was closed in OLQA funeral2007 among much pain and controversy and where Pope Francis will visit the school in September. Ms. Rodriguez described the closing  as “a betrayal” because the Church is a beacon of hope and grace in the heart of what she describes as a high crime area in need of God’s presence.

Barney Richardson of St. Peter Claver Parish in Philadelphia who still20150825_Church_sinkhole-4 (1)mourns the closure of the oldest Black Catholic Church where, as an orphan, he made the Blessed Mother his mother and where their patron saint’s spirituality in opposing slavery and ministering to enslaved peoples inspired the entire community to evangelize.  Mr. Richardson and others experience the holiness there and consider the parish sacred ground.  The parish was suppressed 29 years ago and is being sold.  Mr. Richardson is a fighter who, “has been very active in keeping the church afloat so someone can take it over.” Richardson believes, “the Holy Spirit is keeping me around to fight for it.”A delegation of these four people meeting with Pope Francis would help him to see beyond the carefully constructed logic and rhetoric of archdiocesan officials and to enter into the reality of so many faith-filled Catholics who understand their parish life is worth more than the engineers and enforcers of merger/closure plans can comprehend.

What Would Francis Do?

Demographic shifts, a decline in the number of Catholics attending Mass with many observing we have lost a generation, the fallout from clergy sex abuse that has decimated diocesan bank accounts resulting in the fire sale of valuable church properties, and the priest shortage are all impacting parish life in startling ways.  There are difficulties, some self-inflicted to be sure, but is this pattern of merging and closing parishes in line with the pastoral leadership of Pope Francis?

In a 2007 interview as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio acknowledged the power of the local parish and told priests, “If you can, rent a garage and, if you find some willing layman, let him [the priest] go there! Let him be with those people a bit, do a little catechesis and even give communion if they ask him.”

With 182 parishes serving some 2.5 million Catholics in his former archdiocese, their ratio of Catholics to parish is much worse than the New York Archdiocese run Cardinal Timothy Dolan who, in November 2014 and May 2015 announced the merger and closing of more than 70 parishes, one of the largest restructuring efforts in the history of the diocese.  Instead of 368 parishes serving some 2.6 million Catholics, there are now 296.  If Pope Francis had such an abundance, would he reverse his “rent a garage” philosophy? Would he “restructure”, close parishes serving poor neighborhoods or merge those who have a vibrant faith life and are financially sound?

Or would he recommend imagination, faith and innovation?

In 2007, Cardinal Bergoglio cited clericalization as the central problem, something he has reiterated as Pope.  ‘The priests clericalize the laity and the laity beg us to be clericalized… It really is sinful abetment.”  Then he pointed to the faith of Catholics in Japan who had no priests for more than 200 years saying that when the missionaries returned, they found these Catholics all baptized, married and buried within the tradition.  “The faith had remained intact through the gifts of grace that had gladdened the life of a laity who had received only baptism and had also lived their apostolic mission in virtue of baptism alone.”

Some parishes are picking up on that theme.

At Our Lady of the Eucharist Parish in Pittston, the bishop of Scranton, Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, installed Sister Mary Ann Cody, I.H.M., as parish life coordinator to pastor the faith community in the absence of a resident priest.  A brand new configuration in this diocese, she will provide the day-to-day pastoral and organizational leadership.

As Pope Francis comes to the United States, may his spirit of trust in God’s wisdom catch on.  May he hear the voices of Catholics whose parishes have closed or who are under threat of being closed or merged and may he be enriched and inspired by the guardians of the faith of our day.
















The Cost of Closing Parishes

OLP all night vigilHearing the stories of “last rites” at Our Lady of Peace (NYC), a funeral on a sidewalk at Our Lady Queen of Angels (NYC), the court order to clear out Catholics who have carried out an 11-year vigil at St. Francis Cabrini Scituate, or the decimation of the oldest Black Catholic Church in Philadelphia (St. Peter Claver) will break your heart and leave you wondering why those in leadership would, en masse, restrict themselves to such a few debilitating options.

Cardinals and bishops, some more sensitive than others, justify the systematic merging and closing of parishes by emphasizing the demographic and cultural shifts. But the story of pain and grief suffered by Catholics who once journeyed together and, who now find their common faith life shattered, is a story largely untold.

Twenty nine years 29 years after St. Peter Claver in Philadelphia was officially suppressed, and a year after the building was locked up and put up for sale, 79-year old Barney Richardson still grieves.

As an 8-year old Mr. Richardson’s relatives brought him to the Church.  Their patron saint was a Jesuit priest whose opposition to slavery and ministry to enslaved peoples in Columbia laid the foundation for the spirituality of the entire community and became a model of sainthood for the entire Church.

Recalling the many days he prayed in front of a shrine to the Virgin Mary, Mr. Richardson recalled, “Just imagine all the prayers that went to this shrine.  You can feel the holiness.” Others described St. Peter Claver parish as “sacred ground” where the spirituality formed a truly evangelizing community.

In 1892 Black people came here to find Jesus,” said the Rev. Stephen D. Thorne.  Thorne, the former director of the Archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholics and the current pastor of the Martin de Porres Church in North Philadelphia, said, “It was not just the priests or the religious who were evangelizing. All evangelized from here.”

While Archdiocesan officials say the Church is being sold now because of a sharp decline in attendance, Barney Richardson points out that the declining membership was inevitable after the church was suppressed in 1986.  Further, while the Archdiocese has stated that the “net proceeds from any possible sale will  be designated for the sole purpose of supporting ongoing ministry to the black Catholic community,” Mr. Richardson dismisses their promises saying, “How can you even have an office of black Catholics when you’re selling the mother church of black Catholics?”

As parishes are merged and closed across the United States, there are costs in terms of human relationships, spirituality and sacramental life.  It is a tragedy when those charged to pastor show more loyalty to institutional mindsets than to God and to God’s people.











At LCWR 2015 Two Approaches to the Doctrinal Assessment but One Direction — Avanti! FORWARD!

2015_lcwr_assembly_logo_smallAvanti! This Italian word for “forward!” seems to have been the unofficial theme of the 2015 Assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. To applause, LCWR President, Sharon Holland, IHM urged her fellow sisters “Avanti” several times in her presidential address.

The 2015 Assembly marks the first time the LCWR gathered since the doctrinal assessment came to an end back in April and many were anxious to see what the sisters would have to say about the process. By way of ending her presidential address, quoting Dr. Vanessa White, professor at Catholic Theological Union, Holland reminded the LCWR “What you focus on is what you give power to.” It was a clear signal that the LCWR’s leadership had decided focus its attention on moving forward instead of looking back.

Individual attendees I talked to shared the same interest in looking forward rather than dwelling on the assessment. One sister I sat with on the plane to Houston told me “it’s over. That’s what matters” when I asked her about the assessment. Another gently refocused me – as only a sister can – saying, “how we move forward is the more important question.”

Of course, for the sisters, moving forward doesn’t mean ignoring the past or pretending that the assessment never happened. As Holland said, “In considering what to say this morning about moving forward, I did look back briefly.” There were attempts to place it in context, to learn from it, and to identify the graces that brought the sisters through it.

sharon holland

Holland attempted to answer the question “why?” by framing the assessment in the context of a larger “cultural chasm,” saying, “we were somehow looking at the same realities, but were standing in different places. We didn’t realize that we were experiencing the incomprehension of two groups who did not know each other’s deeper assumptions. We risked slipping into talking about each other, without really talking more deeply with each other.” Looking hopefully at the results of the meetings, she wonders “perhaps all left the room thinking that this time they had been understood.”

MockBYDan2 (1)Keynote presenter, Janet Mock, CSJ, looked for the graces that guided the sisters through the assessment and opportunities to use that grace moving forward. She reflected, “If I have taken away anything from the past three years, it is a greater desire to enter wholeheartedly into both the activity of God when I am called to companion that movement and to wait poised for the action of God when it is beyond my capacity to act.” She recalled that “there were moments when we were rendered silent…it was those moments that God’s activity became most evident.” One such example of God’s activity through the process, according to Mock, was the election of Pope Francis. Mock insisted that “knowing when God is calling you to activity and when God is calling you to passivity is a critical discernment for our times,” urging her colleagues to “let go of the desire to do everything we want to do by ourselves.”

It’s worth noting that both of these treatments of the mandate and assessment were offered at the service of moving forward. For Holland, continuing to close the “cultural chasm” between the LCWR and the Vatican is one direction forward, saying, “a profound issue and goal was and is ecclesial communion.” She pointed out two symbols that ought to give us hope that closing the cultural divide is attainable. First is the joint report of the assessment itself, which she described as being “truly a joint report written and worked through by the same people who had engaged in the dialogue.” The second symbol was the photo of the leadership of LCWR with Pope Francis which she said was “immediately recognized as a long-awaited public symbol of the communion our sisters feel and desire with and within the Church.”

The progress towards greater communion between the LCWR and the Vatican is well underway under Pope Francis. The sisters generally, and Holland specifically, praised Evangelii gaudium, the Year of Consecrated Life, the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, and Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si. Of course the themes of Evangelii gaudium and Laudato Si are not new to the sisters. They’ve been working on these issues since they undertook the work of renewal following Vatican II. But this sort of official recognition of the importance of these themes by this Pope must bring a sense of validation of the last fifty or so years of work the sisters have been doing.

For Mock, the ability to discern times of activity and times of passivity will be vital to religious life in the future. “It is not a time for super stars, even among congregations,” she said. Pointing out that there are approximately 1,200 women in the United states in initial formation in religious congregations, she called upon the leadership to address the educational, spiritual, psychological and personal needs of these women “across congregations together” rather than trying to go it alone. Addressing the needs of the world –immigration, ecological advocacy, human and trafficking to name a few – is another area where the congregations could work together according to Mock. Of course, this will mean congregations each need to embrace a time of activity and a time of passivity.

For Mock, working together, at times taking an active role and at times taking a passive role doesn’t mean squelching the of any individual congregation because each will always bring their charisms and their wisdom to the table: “Instead of threatening our individual charisms, we find working together enhances them – because these charisms illuminate a way of approaching ministry that together makes our service so much richer.”

There well may be as many ways of making sense of the assessment and mandate as there are members of the LCWR. But from what I can tell, there is only one direction: Avanti! Forward!

By way of conclusion, I’d like to offer prayer in solidarity with the LCWR — the same prayer that Janet Mock opened the assembly with:

“And so, God of deep waters, we come as we are. Wash over us with your grace. Refresh us with your Spirit. Lead us into new depths that we may emerge from these days as if baptized anew, strengthened and renewed for your mission. May we be what you want us to be in our time. And may what we are about here be healing for our world. To this we say AMEN.”

AMEN, indeed!

Catholic Women Speak Up in Time for the Synod

CWSEven before the Synod of Bishops could get up to speed after Vatican II, it suffered setbacks under Popes Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Instead of forums for real discussion and decision-making, the “rubber stamp syndrome” came into play as bishops learned to firmly align themselves with the Pope in power.

Pope Francis has set the synod on a new path that is closer to the vision of Vatican II.  Still, as a way toward collegiality, it includes only those who are ordained.  There have been no provisions that allow for full and equal decision making powers by the laity.  Lay input and decision-making are important across the board, but are especially critical as we head toward a synod where family and marriage are front and center. Women’s voices have only been heard at the very margins of synods in the past, yet are critical components in any credible decision making process that involves discussion and debate about pastoral practices related to family life, relationships, marriage and birth control.

This year, a new effort has been launched to make bring women’s voices forward in the lead up to the 2015 Family Synod.

Catholic Women Speak: Bringing our Gifts to the Table, is an extraordinary effort to make women’s experience and reflections on a variety of topics related to the 2015 Family Synod available to synod delegates, auditors, experts and to Catholics everywhere.

Tina Beattie, Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing at the University of Roehampton, headed this effort and is a force of nature in the Catholic Church.

With almost miraculous speed, she and a small group of dedicated editors wove together this first-of-its-kind resource.  Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table is an anthology of essays by women who represent a broad international perspective and come from a variety of personal backgrounds, who believe that the Church cannot come to a wise and informed understanding of family life without listening to women (Paulist Press blurb).

The book is divided into four sub-parts with more than 40 authors from diverse geographies and backgrounds addressing a) our traditions, b) family, marriage and relationships, c) poverty and exclusion and d) our institutions.

The book begins with an essay by Cettina Militello, an Italian theologian who sent a few blessed shockwaves when, at the April 28th conference held at the Pontifical University Antonianum entitled “Women in the Church: Prospects for Dialogue”, she gave an overview of a history of misogyny in the Church, spoke about the devastating effects of Inter Insigniores and criticized the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for its  demonization of gender theory.  In her essay in Catholic Women Speak she follows a similar track sketching the history of women as well as the new realities of 21st century life that should inform Church teaching.  She calls for equality and greater roles for women in the Church noting, “Women have moved from silence to speech, from invisibility to presence, from submission to co-responsibility. The journey has been long and is far from complete, but the goal is now illuminated by the new awareness that God’s design is an inclusive one.”

Lucetta Scaraffia, editor of Donne, Chiesa, Mondo for l’Osservatore Romano likens a synod without women to “breathing with just one lung.”  She makes the observation, “The absence of women at the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family reveals two negative aspects of the life of the Church: ignorance of and lack of interest in the female point of view – even in situations where women are at the heart of the matter – and disconnection from daily life.”

Amelia Beck tells of her experience with Vatican sanctioned birth control and the many babies she conceived even though she was meticulously following the Natural Family Planning method. She calls her essay “Vatican Roulette.”

Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, writes about the marginalization of women in the family and points to the challenges their lives pose to the idealized notions of family and marriage set out by the Church. Where women have little to no access to power of any sort she points out that, “struggling to survive in a world that is marked with poverty, exploitation and lack of personhood, marriage for them is a burden and being born female a curse. Sold or off-loaded into marriage before the age of sixteen, for many of these women “the desire to marry and form a family” is not a choice (Lin. 1). It is a prison sentence, replete with marital rape, domestic violence, isolation, subservience to the point of slavery, and unplanned pregnancies that have fatal consequences for both mother and child.”

Agnes Brazal of the Philippines looks at family life through the prism of out-migration where greater and greater numbers of women are leaving home to bring in much-needed income.  Linked to “international capital’s search for cheap labor and domestic services, as well as to the increasing poverty in the sending countries,” families and especially children are suffering as their parents leave in search of work.  Brazal examines Church teaching with its assumptions about male/female and parenting roles and shows how it fails to take into account the economic strains on family life in the Philippines and beyond — adding to their burdens rather than relieving them.

In the last sub-section dedicated to the institutional church, Christine Schenk, CSJ, describes how the Lectionary leaves out the stories of women, and especially those who acted with authority in early Christianity.  Madeleine Fredell brings in the powerful story of the witness of Mary of Magdala and Rhonda Miska talks about young Catholic Women working in ministry in the Church.

These are just a few of the authors who have contributed to this well-produced resource.  Bishops attending the 2015 Family Synod would be better informed by reading it.

A synod on the family that does not engage women in meaningful ways leaves the Church limping, “breathing with just one lung.”  But more than that, it leaves women and children at risk by what is passed over or assumed because of the blind spots created by race, sex, geography, class, age, privilege, etc.

In my international travels to South Africa a few years ago, I met a women whose words unsettled me because they were so counter-intuitive.  She said, “the most dangerous thing a woman can be is married.”  As my jaw fell open, she explained that she lived in a region where the HIV Aids rate is one of the highest in the world and where men bring the disease home to their wives.  In one of many moments in my life, I, again, saw how limited my own understanding was and how my own privilege blinded me to the realities of women from other parts of the world.  May our bishops understand this is true for them as well, especially as they try to fashion guidance in worlds where women, children and men face life and death situations daily.

May this new book of essays help fill the gap.  Where male experience and wisdom has its limits, may it help the Church to provide meaningful and, yes, life saving guidance to all the baptized.

Deborah Rose-Milavec

FYI, this book is being published by Paulist Press and is available for pre-order from their website.  It is also being offered as part of FutureChurch’s Pentecost campaign.  Learn more.


Holy Anger: New York Catholics Fight to Keep their Parish Open

New York Post Print Edition
New York Post paper edition

One of the most painful aspects of this priest shortage pickle is watching living, breathing parish communities close their doors.

It is death and nothing less.

But is it necessary?

“Go with God?  They’ll Stay!” captures the spirit of Catholics at Our Lady of Peace (OLP) Parish who are refusing to give up on their beloved parish community.  They are standing against the sting of death.  Their parish, founded in 1918 by Italian immigrants,  has been slated for merger by Cardinal Timothy Dolan.  It is one of more than 70 that have been merged or closed under the program “Making All Things New”, reducing the total number of parishes in the archdiocese from 368 to 296.

In those numbers are countless hurting, grieving and angry Catholics.

This past Saturday, OLP parishioners held mass outside of their locked church as a sign and symbol of their dedication to keep the community they love open. They also have created a petition that cites the many reasons for keeping the parish open including its financial health, the property’s landmarked status and their outreach programs.  They want to get 3,000 signatures by Aug. 31 and are nearly there with over 2800.

The Vatican is now reviewing their appeal and they will learn that decision by September 1, 2015.

There is a holy anger that Jesus exhibits when he starts knocking over the tables of the money changers and sellers in the Temple.  He is fed up with the hard hearts of the leaders there and the resulting corruption that allows a holy place to be denigrated.

Many who have seen their vibrant parishes close have felt that sense of holy anger.  One parishioner at Our Lady of Peace Church articulated it perfectly.  “I’m staying here . . . I’m not going anywhere,” said Agnes Colina, 67. “I’m angry, I’m bitter because they shouldn’t close it.”




If Pope Francis had his druthers, the Church would open wide its doors to those who divorce and remarry

AP photo
AP photo

If Pope Francis had his druthers, the Church would change its treatment of those who are divorced and remarried.  On August 5, 2015 he shot a warning to pastors — don’t treat them like they are excommunicated. Do just the opposite.

The church, must be one of ‘’open doors,” he said during a general audience with newlyweds present.  It seems like an unlikely place for a pastor talk about the plight of those divorced and remarried, yet, Pope Francis saw it as the perfect opportunity to raise the issue by asking,  “How do we take care of those who, following the irreversible failing of their family bond made a new union?”

Reminding pastors and people alike, “People who started a new union after the defeat of their sacramental marriage are not at all excommunicated.” And he urged, “they absolutely must not be treated that way.”

As the Pope who leads in the way of compassion, he exhorted, “They always belong to the church.”

According to Francis, even the sacraments are meant to serve, inspire and invite rather than exclude.

“The church knows well that such a situation (divorce and remarriage) contradicts the Christian sacrament,”  but Francis maintained that the church must always “seek the well-being and salvation of persons.”

When it comes to children, the illogic of trying to bring them up in the faith that excludes their parents does not escape him.

He asked how the church can insist that the children of failed marriage be raised by their parents “with an example of convinced and practiced faith, if we keep them (the parents) far from the community life as if they were excommunicated?”

Like a parent or grandparent, he exhorted pastors “not to add additional weight beyond what the children in this situation have to bear. Unfortunately the numbers of these children and young people are truly great.”

With his usual wisdom, he reminded all to look through the eyes of those who are affected saying, “If we look at these new ties with the eyes of young children … we see ever more the urgency to develop in our community true welcome toward people living in these situations.”

How far can the Church go in engendering a new pastoral spirit of compassion, love and openness?  There is real hope for change as we head toward the October meeting.  Pope Francis is not just waiting for the Holy Spirit to act alone, nor is he taking lightly the actions of those like Augustinian Father Robert Dodaro who are highly motivated to maintain the status quo.   He is setting the stage for change with his words and his chess-like actions.





Assumptions about the Assumption

Dalit Mother by Jyoti Sahi
Dalit Mother by Jyoti Sahi

A Reflection on Mary on the Feast of the Assumption by Deborah Rose-Milavec

Like many Catholic women, I have struggled with some of the imagery surrounding Mary of Nazareth.  Was she a doormat?  A “yes” woman?  A docile, passive type – who obeyed rather than questioned?

As a youngster, I loved Mary and without question and absorbed all the stories about her.  But as I grew into young adulthood, her flawlessness started to trouble me.  As a young mother sitting in church with four little children and a baby in my lap, I wondered what I could possibly have in common with this perfect specimen of a woman.  A virgin and a mother?  How could I relate to that?  Conceived without sin?  What did that mean?  Assumed into heaven?  How?  The Mary who had so easily been part of my heart, now seemed distant and more alien to me.

My journey to understand Mary mirrors what many other Catholic women have struggled to understand.  Because of modern biblical scholarship and feminist scholarship in particular, we know that Mary’s image, more than any other, has been shaped within a patriarchal narrative and promulgated to define women’s roles and place of women in the Church.

Thankfully, scholars like Elizabeth Johnson, Judith Davis, Jeanette Rodrigues, Mary Christine Athans, Rosemary Radford Ruether and others have begun re-sorting who Mary is in our salvation history.  They have unearthed a historical, incarnate Mary who struggled with and was empowered by her God.  In a relationship that was fierce and yet, tender; unnerving and yet, irresistible; (s)heroic and yet, available to all – Mary held together the dismal realities of her people and her belief that God wanted something more for them.

Mary no “yes” woman.  Yet, she did say “yes” to the God who called her to speak prophetically for those who were oppressed.   Like the mothers in Palestinian refugee camps, the women raped in Iraq, those fleeing violence in South Sudan, or those making a life in the slums of Nairobi, she knew God stood against those who used their power to oppress and exploit and stood with those who were deprived of their dignity and life because of that abuse.  It was a truth she proclaimed to her community and taught to her son.

And after a long and faithful life to God, did she die?  How did we arrive at the story of the Assumption?

The Assumption, like many other stories in our Marian tradition will be explored in FutureChurch’s newest educational series that will be launched in time for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, 2015.

But you do not have to wait in suspense.  In FutureChurch’s Advent packet, Judith Davis, PhD, sketches out the complex history of the Assumption story and how it arose to a place of prominence in our tradition.  On this feast day we have made this essay available for you to download for free.  CLICK HERE to download this informative resource.

Beyond all dogma, Mary remains, in Elizabeth Johnson’s words, one of the cloud of witnesses, a “friend of God and prophet” and “truly our sister.”


Cardinal Burke is out; Cardinals Kasper and Danneels are in

Paul Haring CNS
Paul Haring CNS

Pope Francis is weaving hope into the Synod process.  Robert Mickens reports on his role in shaping the outcome.

Via a Vatican source, Mickens learned that Pope Francis will NOT be inviting Cardinal Raymond Burke back to the synod floor.  While Burke did not have voting rights, per se, he did moderate one of the English speaking small groups (Group A) last year which gave him tremendous power to sway others to follow his lead.  As a matter of fact, from the looks of the final recommendations from English Group A, it is hard to find any evidence that moderate Mons. John Atcherley Dew was relator for the same group.

And while Pope Francis is keeping more caustic voices like Raymond Burke at bay, he is also confirming his point men, Cardinals Walter Kasper (Germany) and Godfried Danneels (Belgium), to be there again.

Under Synod protocol, Pope Francis can make appointments, but it seems that Pope Francis is expanding his appointments from the typical fifteen percent to, according to Mickens, up to one-third of the Synod Fathers.   He recently appointed Archbishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago and Bishop George Murry SJ of Youngstown.

There will be around 345 participants, including bishops, priests, curial heads, those elected from the Union of Superior Generals, experts and observers.  Of those who can vote, there will be more than 260 bishops and priests with Pope Francis appointing more than 80.

To what extent will Pope Francis’s call for a more merciful, loving Church be upheld at the 2015 Family Synod?  He is humble.  He is savvy.  And, after decades of bishops who conformed to the will of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is wisely choosing those who will help lead the Church in a more pastoral direction.


How a synod works

The most current list of attendees to the 2015 Family Synod



When the Church Closes Shop

FutureChurch thanks John A. Dick (Jack or J.A. for short) for his permission to repost this insightful commentary of Church closings. Jack’s blog, “Another Voice” can be viewed here.

Well equipped with both a PhD and an STD (doctorate of sacred theology) J.A. Dick is a Church historian and long time Vatican observer and reform activist.

“When the church closes shop, it loses more than just an old building” — J.A. Dick

imagesAcross the United States, the Roman Catholic Church is closing churches. In some cases appeals to the Vatican have resulted in the re-opening of the closed churches; but the trend is well-established and growing.

The big dioceses of course always get the headlines. I first started paying closer attention to the trend in the spring of 2004, when Boston’s Archbishop (he became Cardinal in 2006) Seán Patrick O’Malley announced, in what may be the largest loss of parishes by an American Catholic diocese at one time, that 65 of the archdiocese’s 357 parishes would close by the end of the year. Philadelphia made headlines in the spring of 2014 when the Archdiocese announced that 46 churches would be closed.

And now this summer, thousands of Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York are attending final liturgies in parishes Cardinal Timothy Dolan has set to close. The Archdiocese announced that 112 parishes will be merged into 55 larger new parishes. In 31 of those new parishes, one of the churches will no longer be used for regular services, meaning those churches will be effectively closed by August. East Harlem, home to successive waves of Catholic immigrants for generations, is among the most affected neighborhoods. Three of its seven Catholic churches will be closed.

The reasons usually given for church closings are “demographic changes” and “the growing shortage of priests.”

“Demographic changes,” of course, can mean a lot of things: parishes with older people, who cannot afford building maintenance; parishes with mostly low-income ethnic groups who cannot afford the costs of church upkeep; people moving from inner cities to the suburbs; and of course the growing number of people simply dropping out of the Roman Catholic Church. Finances are a big issue, often included under “demographic changes.” In New York City, Cardinal Dolan has to pay for the “restoration” or renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When announced in 2012, the restoration was projected to cost roughly $175 million and is to be finished in December 2015. Some conservative and wealthy Catholics, turned off by the anti-capitalist rhetoric of Pope Francis, have warned Cardinal Dolan that they are re-considering their contributions. Looking at the list of New York Archdiocese churches to be closed, one sees that there are nine in Manhattan. If the Archdiocese could sell those properties, I suspect there would be fewer headaches about paying for the refurbishing of St. Patrick’s. Just a thought.

“The growing shortage of priests,” is a big problem for sure. It could be solved tomorrow, actually, if some courageous bishops would begin to ordain already qualified men as priests. (I would suggest women as well, but our US bishops are not ready for that step. Some might be encouraged to ordain women deacons however.) Another solution of course would be to move in the direction of “intentional Eucharistic communities” in which non-ordained people preside at Eucharist. (My old professor at the University of Nijmegen, the Belgian “Dutch theologian” Edward Schillebeeckx, often said “there is no reason for a community to be without Eucharist.”)

Consolidating parishes is part of the trend. Some observers suggest that the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is moving toward a parochial model of super-sized parishes, along the lines of the mega-churches. As symbolic of the change they point to the Diocese of Orange California, which purchased Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, now said to be able to accommodate 5,000 people, to be the new cathedral for the Diocese of Orange.

So what is happening in this parochial reconfiguration of the US Roman Catholic Church? Is a bigger parish necessarily better? To me the clarifying issue is understanding the church as a community of faith.

The church as a community of faith is not like a chain of supermarkets, where people come in, put their money in the box, get their religious product from an increasingly anonymous person, and stand in line to get communion — and then head home.

A vibrant – graced-filled and life-giving – church is like a neighborhood store, where people know each other, share concerns, and get not just a product but service with a knowing smile. Christian ministry.

It struck me as pastorally poignant (and pastorally irresponsible) that at least two of the churches being closed in the Archdiocese of New York are prime examples of what the church should be as a community of faith: the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Agony.

The Church of the Nativity, in New York City’s East Village, is a simple cinder block and brick building. Its parishioners are immigrants, working families, young professionals, poor people, and homeless people, who are welcomed inside the church for refuge. All parishioners consider it their spiritual home.

A hundred blocks, or so, north of Nativity, in a poor and mostly Hispanic neighborhood, one finds the Church of the Holy Agony. It ministers to East Harlem’s Roman Catholic, mainly Puerto Rican, community. This church is packed every Sunday.

Both the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Agony have similar histories. They were established in the 1950’s and 1960’s to serve immigrant or non-English-speaking communities with money raised by their congregations not New York’s Archdiocese. Nativity has seen its numbers diminish a bit as the East Village gentrifies, while Holy Agony’s pews are filled for Eucharist every Sunday.

What I find most surprising – and most baffling – is that both of these Archdiocese of New York churches are active faith communities and financially solvent. They are still paying their own way and have little or no debt.

They may be very well-organized institutions; but supermarket churches leave me cold. We already live in an increasingly too impersonal world. I really prefer the smaller local neighborhood communities. They are personal and intimate. They have qualified leaders – whether ordained or lay – and they have a truly face-to-face pastoral presence. Aren’t they really more Christ-like?

When the church closes shop, it loses more than just an old building.

St. Louis, MO Parish Stands Against Human Trafficking at Mary of Magdala Celebration

St. Louis, MO — Parishioners at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish gathered together on July 20th to celebrate Mary of Magdala. In keeping with this year’s theme of Being Witnesses to Victims of Human Trafficking, the celebration invited participants to consider action steps they could take to help put an end to this modern day form of slavery.