As 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 keep 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 2007 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 stillmourns 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.