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.

https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/spiritual-assault
http://www.nytimes.com/1997/07/18/business/woolworth-gives-up-on-the-five-and-dime.html

When the Church Acts Like a Corporation

Slick words are often used when a corporation wants to make their decision to cut the labor force to seem palatable, even smart.  Descriptors that are meant to mollify like “downsizing,” “restructuring” and (a particularly smooth one) “right-sizing” come to mind.

First frame of cartoon by Pat Maurin
First frame of cartoon by Pat Maurin

As Pope Francis comes to the United States, I really hope he gets to meet some of the people who have suffered in the movement to “right-size” the Church in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and other places across the United States.  This Pope is the kind of “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” person Matthew 10:16 describes and corporate models do not impress him.  He understands that the parish, like the family, is the basic organizing unit, the foundation for proclaiming and spreading the work of the Gospel.  Yet, too many bishops have defended and rationalized the corporate model and continue to merge or close parishes rather than #openordination or look for other creative ways (parish life coordinators, etc.) to keep parishes open.

Why?

After experiencing the slick, off-putting tactics of prelates who too often obstruct Catholics who are working to keep their parishes open; systematically dismantle their faith communities and, in the final blow, sell off the property — those who once trusted their leadership now point to the money that is exchanging hands and the coffers that are spilling over as proof these men value mammon over God, the Gospel and God’s people.

Yesterday, the Boston Globe reported that the Archdiocese of Boston sold the formerly closed Our Lady of Mount Carmel church for $3 million.

Gina Scalcione, 75, who lives across the street from Our Lady of Mount Carmel said, “I knew it was coming — they’re heartless. The big investors who are buying the property, they want every inch of everything in East Boston.”

Benito Tauro, age 82, a long time parishioner who joined the parish in 1952 points out the obvious damage, “I feel part of me has gone with the church, but what can I do?  It’s a shame what they did to us, and what they did to the religion.”

Parishioners fought the closing and occupied the church for years.  The archdiocese changed the locks on the doors and shut them out.   Rome upheld the archdiocese in the appeal process.  Now some twenty of these parishioners join others to pray in front of the statue of Padre Pio that Benito Tauro donated and erected just across the street.

It’s a shame what they did to us, and what they did to the religion.   ~ Benito Tauro

Maybe the saddest, but most important comment for Pope Francis to hear comes from Lorenzo Grasso, 63, who now joins the weekly prayer vigil.

“As far as I’m concerned, after this, if we do dissolve, I will either watch the Mass on TV, or not go anywhere.”

Grasso is like many Catholics who left when their parish merged or closed.  According to a 2003 study, 40% of parishes that merge or close report that a sizable number Catholics walk away and never return.

In this Francis era where he once urged priests to rent a garage to build the Church, our Pope should hear the stories of suffering told by Gina Scalcione, Benito Tauro and Lorenza Grasso when he arrives on our shores.  Their witness is critical if Church leaders are going to be encouraged to turn back from this corporate mentality, end their love affair with “right sizing”  and find pastoral, creative ways to keep faith communities and the Gospel alive.

Written by:  Deborah Rose-Milavec, Executive Director

Related

http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/09/02/boston-archdiocese-sells-closed-east-boston-church-for-million/ug3BcpRjq58j28hz7TgozK/story.html

https://www.futurechurch.org/sites/default/files/2003_natl_study_parish_reorg.pdf

https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/regionals/north/2014/08/20/decade-after-closing-new-life-condos-and-apartments-for-historic-catholic-parishes/A8x7TTxImzABAOv6hffDDJ/story.html

http://scituate.wickedlocal.com/article/20150610/NEWS/150619477

 

 

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.

Related

http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/pope-francis-visit-school-east-harlem-article-1.2278133

http://www.wsj.com/articles/pope-francis-to-visit-east-harlem-school-during-nyc-trip-1435672511

http://www.metro.us/philadelphia/black-catholic-mother-church-still-mourned-by-lifelong-parishioner/zsJohz—3FDJkw9XfZmE/

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/nyregion/popes-visit-to-east-harlem-school-highlights-churchs-challenges.html

http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/07/31/final-mass-churches-merge/

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/23/nyregion/23harlem.html

http://www.wsj.com/articles/vatican-to-review-some-n-y-churches-set-to-merge-or-close-1434740590

http://citizensvoice.com/news/the-future-of-faith-priest-shortage-latest-crisis-facing-diocese-of-scranton-1.1934445

http://www.wsj.com/articles/archdiocese-of-new-york-announces-parish-merger-decisions-1431091536

http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/05/08/archdiocese-of-new-york-merges-31-additional-churches/

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/03/nyregion/new-york-catholics-are-set-to-learn-fate-of-their-parishes.html?_r=0

http://www.lohud.com/story/news/religion/2015/05/08/archdiocese-catholic-church-closings/26974959/

http://www.winonadailynews.com/news/local/new-plan-for-winona-diocese-vision-calls-for-mergers-closings/article_d89c465f-d937-5c02-a47b-0fb119a2431d.html

https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/tall-orders

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.

Related

http://ncronline.org/blogs/simply-spirit/parishes-priest-shortages-and-gifts-spirit

http://www.metro.us/philadelphia/black-catholic-mother-church-still-mourned-by-lifelong-parishioner/zsJohz—3FDJkw9XfZmE/

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/03/nyregion/new-york-catholics-are-set-to-learn-fate-of-their-parishes.html

http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/07/20/mass-church-occupiers-will-be-back-in-court-this-week/

http://www.npr.org/2015/05/06/404739757/boston-archdiocese-catholic-parishioners-battle-over-church-eviction

http://articles.philly.com/2015-04-13/news/61070247_1_parishes-archbishop-charles-j-timothy-o-shaughnessy

http://ncronline.org/blogs/roman-observer/vocations-shortage-has-become-acute-crisis

http://ncronline.org/news/faith-parish/priest-group-asks-us-bishops-start-dialogue-married-clergy

http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/06/16/its-time-to-reset-our-pastoral-strategy-ordain-married-men/

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.”

Related:
http://olpchurchnyc.typepad.com/my-blog/2015/08/an-assumption.html

 

 

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.

Sr. Diana Culbertson Reviews: The Catholic Labyrinth

the catholic labyrinthCatholics interested in Church reform should know this book.  Be warned: it is not an easy read.  But it is a point of view that should be considered by all those who love the Church and want it to be more inclusive, more tolerant, more competently administered, and holier.  The author is not a theologian, ecclesiologist, or historian, but his competence as a social scientist gives him credibility as an analyst of  the social structure  of the Catholic Church and its limitations. He focuses not on the hierarchy or doctrine, but on efforts to manage  efficiently the  vast  human and financial resources of the Church.  Thus first consideration is given to SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests).  As the author points out, SNAP’s stand is adversarial. (“The assumption is that the institutional Church is beyond fixing.”) Its focus on vindication and compensation for survivors  has been largely successful  even as it continues to keep up the pressure against administrative forces who –in retrospect—should have known better.  It cannot be considered a reform group interested in the Church as Church.  Its members and supporters are largely outside the Church, but the intensity of its efforts has instigated massive change in diocesan administration, personnel, and ethical oversight.

More benevolent in its efforts to reform financial administrative structure is the Leadership Roundtable.  It was the “managerial bungling” in the sexual abuse crisis that led influential civic leaders, entrepreneurs, and bishops to found an advisory group to address what they saw as managerial incompetence in the Church—or at least the American Church.  As the author points out, the word “reform” is nowhere to be found on their website, nor is theological “bickering” tolerated.  This advisory group simply wants to focus on the needs of diocesan and parish life, offering solutions for practical issues, but nothing that touches on doctrine (such as female deacons to relieve the priest shortage). The segmentation of institutional Catholicism makes their work difficult, and political will is weak.  The work of the Roundtable is hampered by the problem of who controls change and who benefits from it.

Chris Schenk and FutureChurch get good press in this book. The “selling point” is the causal connection between the shortage of priests and parish closings. FutureChurch has been “ahead of the curve,” the author argues, in challenging the hierarchy to get serious about the impending crisis in the Church.  “The clarity of FutureChurch’s program, the organization’s feel for political timing, and its mix of ambivalence and determination are rare qualities.”  The reforms agitated by FutureChurch would alleviate the current “logistical nightmares and the hemorrrhaging disappointment with leadership created by the shortage of priests.”  The question is whether being on the right side of history is enough.

Equally thorough is the author’s analysis of Voice of the Faithful.  When The Boston Globe broke the story of the sexual abuse crisis in the Boston archdiocese and the attempted cover up and misuse of money, 4000 Catholics   swarmed to the Hynes Convention Center to voice their protests.  Cardinal Law was forced to resign. VOTF was born. As McDonough argues, people wanted to express themselves, but that did not mean that they were heard. VOTF was banned in Boston. Part of the problem of VOTF, as the author argues, was the difficulty of bringing coherence to the mission. It eventually became an omnibus movement whose operative model is that of a “loyal opposition” group with no overtly  doctrinal disagreement with the Church.  According to the author, the weakness of VOTF is the lack of tangible objectives and the “local nature of parish life.”  Everyone agrees with the need for reform, but can a mass movement (such as VOTF) advance the kind of specific changes that are necessary ? Voice of the Faithful raises significant questions, but actionable agenda items are less clear—and thus success, however defined, is less measurable.

McDonough points out in this study of power and politics in the American Church that conservative  groups such as the Knights of Columbus, Opus Dei, and the Catholic League have deep financial pockets and thus extensive influence in the Church, influence that extends  beyond in-house politics.  How far that influence goes is difficult to determine, but a look at the chart provided by the author reveals how impoverished are the resources of Call to Action, VOTF and FutureChurch compared to the extensive financial resources of more powerful groups.  “The organizational arena of church politics does not encircle a level playing field,” says McDonough, “the tilt is toward the right.”  That observation alone should give us pause, but adversity—financial or otherwise—does not deprive us of hope.