Shrinking the Catholic Brand: Are We Witnessing the Woolworth Model of Management? by Deborah Rose-Milavec

numberofpraisheswopriestsMedia outlets are reporting new rounds of parish mergers and closures.  If you are scratching your head at this phenomenon, you are not alone.  You may even ask, “How is this prelate-led strategy beneficial for the Body of Christ, or more importantly, how does it catalyze the community in making the Gospel mission a reality throughout our world?”

Our faith tells us that we are to be the People of God, the Body of Christ — the eyes, ears, heart and hands of God here on earth, commissioned to bring the Good News especially to those who are marginalized in our societies.  Yet, by all measures, those in leadership seem to be downsizing — shrinking the number the Eucharistic communities where we feed on God’s word and learn how to love God and neighbor.  Does this strategy help us accomplish our mission?

Pope Francis knows that the Church benefits mightily from solid managerial practices.  He has done some heavy lifting in terms of Vatican finances and restructuring curial offices.   But what about Church at the local level?  When it comes to restructuring parish communities, is it fair to ask, “Are bishops suffering from the Woolworth management syndrome?” Woolworth stores, once a leading model in the retail five and dime business, went bust in the 1990s because they couldn’t adapt to a changing environment.  The Guardian wrote that the company “had outlived its usefulness.”

The Catholic Church is not a five and dime store.  Indeed, we need fewer places for consumers to consume.  But, whatever value Woolworth had, its inability to adapt to new models of commerce — the signs of the times — led to its demise.  Wouldn’t it be a sad story if the Catholic Church went the Woolworth way?

We know the CARA statistics — the hundred thousand mile view. People are moving to the West and South and along with it we see a Catholic migration.  The statistics make parish mergers and closings in the North and East seem logical.  Maybe it is true that our penchant to replicate European building structures presents a formidable challenge when there are demographic shifts, but at the heart of our dilemma is an attachment to one way of providing the Eucharist and sacramental life —  through the male celibate clergy.   Indeed, Catholic bishops have not been able to adapt to a changing environment in a way that revitalizes the Church and they have been loath to address the looming priest shortage in a way that allows for innovation and change at the heart of our ministerial (operating) system.  We need to ask, “How will this end?  Are we going the Woolworth way?”

Over the past decade over 1,350 parishes have closed.  In the Archdiocese of New York, although he has not had his way entirely thanks to the work of tenacious Catholics, Cardinal Dolan has been working to merge and close over 149 parishes.  The Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed or merged 46 parishes.  The Archdiocese of Chicago will face a second round of mergers and closures involving 80 to 100 parishes.  The Diocese of Sioux City will close 41 parishes by 2017. The Diocese of Cleveland will face another round of mergers and closures due to the shrinking number of priests. The list and the problem goes on.

Archbishop Blaise Cupich, a Francis appointee, will work as thoughtfully and pastorally as any bishop can, but if we cling to the idea that we need one priest for each parish in a Catholic environment where the priest shortage is not a minor blip, but an ongoing reality, how does one more merger or closure, no matter how pastorally presented, solve anything?

The fall out from merging and closings parishes is huge.

1.  We lose Catholics.  Parish mergers and closings drive down the numbers of practicing Catholics. One study shows that up to 40% of Catholics never return when they are turned out of their parish home.

2.  We lose valuable outreach to disenfranchised communities.  We shrink our ability to carry out the Gospel mission.

3.  We strain and sometimes collapse already fragile communities.  When a parish closes, gas stations close.  Stores close. People who need more services get fewer.  Blight roots itself more profoundly and people lose hope.

Whether by design or default, the genius that is the Body of Christ — the organism that powers God’s Gospel-oriented transformation on earth — is being diminished, one parish community at a time.

While we are inundated with loads of statistical data meant to allay fears and foster acceptance of the current strategy, we have a responsibility to look hard at the methods being employed by our bishops and call for greater courage and clarity in facing the root causes and the unsustainable attachment to models of ministry that no longer serve us in this age.  We have seen the effects of round one in the merger/closure strategy.  Will round two, three, four or five make us stronger or just bring us closer to some eventual end – diminishing our numbers and ultimately impeding our collective ability to carry out the Gospel? Will someone write two hundred years from now that the Catholic Church “outlived its usefulness”?

In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis urged Catholics to remember, “The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach (28).”  In 2007, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he urged priests to “rent a garage” so people could experience Eucharistic community.

Some bishops have been taking his words to heart and are working pastorally and creatively to keep their parishes open.  Bishop Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., from the Diocese of Scranton appointed Mary Ann Cody, I.H.M. to serve as parish life coordinator and to shepherd the community of Our Lady of the Eucharist in the absence of a resident priest.  In Indiana, Archbishop Joseph Tobin reversed a decision to merge 4 rural parishes into one mega-church.

More than ever we need courageous conversations.  We need to share emerging models for ministry, like those in Austria and Switzerland.  We need men who are married, women and an empowered laity to step up alongside our priests to nurture the life that is our parish community.  We need Eucharistic communities more than ever – places to nourish one another and to grow in holiness.  We need to be transformed – not for some individualistic end, but for our work as the People of God in carrying out God’s dream.

Recently, Archbishop Cupich wrote, “We should not be afraid to face these realities, but rather see this moment as a graced opportunity to chart new ways to live out our mission more fully.” Let’s take Archbishop Cupich’s words to heart and seek new models born of God’s spirit today.