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.


Buffalo, NY Celebrates Mary of Magdala in honor of deceased Sister

Sister Mary ThompsonBuffalo, NY- At the end of July,  Sister Mary Thompson, SSMN, author of Mary of Magdala, Apostle and Leader (New York: Paulist Press 1995) passed away unexpectedly.

An interest in women of the gospel led her to write “Mary of Magdala: Apostle and Preacher.”  Women took a strong interest in this book because Sister Mary’s writing portrays Mary of Magdala as a leader of considerable influence rather than the erroneous identification of her as the sinful woman of St. Luke 7:36-50. Sister wrote:

“To have been the only person, male or female, listed in all four gospels as the first to realize that Jesus is risen and to have announced that message to the other disciples was to have reached undeniable prominence.”BuffaloMaryMag

Thank you, Sister Mary Thompson, for your ministry and your dedication to Saint Mary of Magdala! May you rejoice with Mary Magdala this day!

Synod Watch – Archbishop Cupich joins the delegation

Countdown to the 2015 Family Synod

cupichWith less than two months before the 2015 Synod on the Family opens, there is some good news.  Although the U.S. Bishops chose to make him an alternate and not a delegate to synod on the family, Pope Francis has tapped Archbishop Blase Cupich to be there.  Pope Francis has also chosen Bishop George Murry, a Jesuit and an African American, from the Diocese of Youngstown Ohio.

Synod delegates are chosen by their bishops’ conference, but Pope Francis also chooses a number of delegates.

From the U.S., the following bishops will attend.

  • Louisville: Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, USCCB president
  • Galveston-Houston: Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, USCCB vice president
  • Los Angeles: Archbishop Jose Gomez
  • Philadelphia: Archbishop Charles Chaput
  • Chicago: Archbishop Blase Cupich
  • Youngstown: Bishop George Murry

Also in attendance will be:

  • Washington D.C.:  Cardinal Donald Wuerl
  • New York:  Cardinal Timothy Dolan

Metropolitan William Skurla of the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh will also attend.

The lay auditors and experts have not yet been announced.  Last year, Jeffrey and Alice Heinzen of Wisconsin attended.

How they are aligning

United States

While Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishops Gomez and Chaput will hold the line on Church teaching and pastoral practice, we will see greater flexibility from the more moderate Archbishop Kurtz.  Archbishop Cupich and Bishop Murry promise even greater alignment with Pope Francis’s vision emphasizing the Pope’s social justice approach to Church teaching.


There are a total of 40 African bishops attending the synod and most do not want Western values to influence their country or the Church.   In June, heads from 45 bishops’s conferences met and agreed to stand strong on traditional family values.

Kenya’s representatives, Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi and Bishop James Wainaina Kungu of Muranga hold tightly to current Church doctrine on homosexuality.

Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Ghana has appealed to Pope Francis to take a firm stand against homosexuality and communion for the divorced and remarried.  Cardinal Robert Sarah wants African values unversalized and has urged synod delegates to “speak with one voice.”  Still, Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana has suggested he would favor new practices for those divorced and remarried.

Bishop Gervais Bashimiyubusa, president of the bishops’ conference of Burundi wants no change on the Church’s teaching on on contraception and Archbishop Gabriel Mbilingi of Lubango, Angol is urging African bishops to speak with one voice on these matters.

Latin America

Archbishop José María Arancedo of Argentina and Cardinal Mario Poli have alluded to “an opening on the issue of the divorced and remarried.”  Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati Andrello of Chile supports civil unions for same-sex couples.  But others are more conservative.  Archbishop Antonio Arregui Yarza of Ecuador, an Opus Dei member, has been a leading voice against progressive reproductive health measures and same-sex unions in his country and Mexico’s delegates will tend to oppose softening the Church’s teachings on marriage.


Bishop Heiner Koch, Cardinal Reinhard Marx and Bishop Franz-Josef Bode are supporters of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s philosophy for the synod and will represent Germany.


Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp has been appointed by Francis as a delegate.  In December, Bonny urged the Church to accept gay relationships as part of  the “diversity of forms.”


Archbishop Paul Bùi Văn Đọc of Vietnam seemed to take a more flexible stand on divorce and remarriage last year.


Archbishop Georges Pontier of France has aligned himself with Pope Francis and wants the Church to take a more open position on some of the issues related to marriage.

United Kingdom

Cardinal Vincent Nichols has signaled he is open to new measures for divorced and remarried Catholics as he urges Catholics to move away from the idea that the synod is a battleground.  In March he criticized 500 priests from England and Wales who signed a letter calling for synod leaders to stand firmly opposed to any changes to current Catholic teaching on marriage and family.

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, one of the delegates to the synod, met with representatives from Faith in Marriage Equality (an ecumenical group) and We Are Church (a Roman Catholic church reform group) organizations at his residence in June. He continues to exhibit more openness to the issue of gay marriage that found majority support in his country.


Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki has stated that the Polish contingent will oppose any softening of the lines proposed by the German bishops.  Archbishop Henryk Hoser stands opposed to any Kasper reforms.

Who won’t be there

Cardinal  Raymond Burke will not be at the 2015 synod.  He did attend the 2014 Extraordinary Synod exerting influence prior to the opening by co-authoring the book “Remaining in the Truth of Christ” which was sent to synod delegates.  The book was reportedly intercepted by Cardinal Lorenzo Balidserri.  Not unexpectedly, Burke was a very vocal, sharp critic of the miderm document and one of the influencers who made sure any welcoming language for homosexuals found in the mid-term document was slashed.  He continues to make efforts to influence the 2015 Ordinary synod via the media, but he will not join the synod as a delegate during this round.



https://synodonfamily.wordpress.com/ (Catholic News Service)