How we handle parish closures will decide the future of Catholic Church for decades to come
In scenes that sadly will become all too familiar here in the UK, parishioners in Massachusetts, USA, this week hugged each other and cried openly as their beloved church finally closed.
The group of 100 or so worshippers attracted considerable media attention across the United States over their 11-year battle to keep St Frances X Cabrini Church in Scituate open.
In what was the final move that ended their 24/7 vigil, the US Supreme Court this month refused to hear their final appeal against the Archdiocese of Boston’s decision to close it, and the Massachusetts Appeal Court upheld an earlier ruling that the archdiocese was legally able to evict the protesters, as the legal owner of the property.
As the final service came to an end last Sunday, quilts depicting each year of the vigil were taken from the walls of the church and carried down the aisles and out of the church door.
The archdiocese making the decision decided to close St Frances (and more than 75 other parishes) due to what it has claimed are dwindling attendances, a shortage of clergy, buildings in decline and the clergy abuse scandal.
I say ‘it has claimed’ without having any detailed knowledge of the situation in Boston, but with a very close connection to similar matters here in the UK, where exactly the same reasons are being given for the mass closure of Catholic churches. Understandably, the reaction from parishioners to each and every parish closure announcement has been a heady mix of anger, outrage, helplessness and frustration, not helped in some cases by less than direct and open dialogue on the decision.
That said, the closing of Catholic Churches is nothing new, and a quick scan through back issues of the English Catholic Directory over the past 150 years shows a quite astonishing level of flux in Catholic communities that most of us would be astonished at.
The UK Catholic Church seems to have gone through at least three key moments in the past century when almost everyone was convinced we were about to slip into oblivion.
For most Catholics today such tribulations seem inconceivable. The explosion in UK Catholicism in the 1950s and early 60s led to the rapid creation of Catholic communities in almost every centre of population, and with it, an aggressive and largely random programme of church building, with dioceses all competing to demonstrate the most fruitful expansion.
On two particular counts this has created some of the problems we are now having to confront.
First, a building is a fixed entity, whereas a group of people gathered under a banner are not. As the UK demographic and domestic lifestyles and habits have changed, many Catholic churches now find themselves either bereft of members, or in localities that simply don’t enable them to function.
Second, the building techniques of the 1950s and 60s in particular were centred around rapid construction materials, not least concrete and steel, and these materials have a very finite life of around 40/50 years. Such materials were invariably structural, so their failure compromises buildings beyond what is any form of economical repair.
Also revealing from early editions of the English Catholic Directory are the mechanisms by which many of our classic Catholic churches from the turn of the last century were built. Often it was wealthy benefactors, usually the descendants of Catholic recusants, who paid the bulk, or even the full, cost of building, and this generosity was invariably supported by numerous smaller donations from parishioners.
Yes, new Catholic churches are still being built, but benefactors are few and, perhaps more significantly, the financial contribution of ordinary Catholics to their parishes has reduced significantly, among a population that otherwise has seen its personal wealth increase.
So, to me at least it seems only reasonable that we take an honest view of those Catholic churches that are coming to the end of their structural viability and, before we rush to rebuild and replace, a long, hard look also needs to be taken at their community context.
Even in cases where funding might be available for a new build, that’s the easy bit – the real financial challenge is in maintaining and servicing a new build into the decades ahead, especially if we really are looking at declining numbers.
And that’s where the real question lies when it comes to rationalisations and closures. I must confess I have some difficulty in accepting such a profound decision as the closure of a parish and the dispersal of a faith community made today in anticipation of something that might (or indeed. might not) be about to hit us in a few decades time.
The argument that churches have to close now because the current advanced age of priests means there will soon be a shortage is irrational to say the least. Surely any church should remain open until the very last day that there is no priest capable of serving in it?
And what of the looming, or indeed present, ‘clergy shortage’? For sure, many of our priests are now very elderly and have earned their retirement long ago.
Speak to the clergy, though, and many are more than willing to ensure Masses remain available across their diocese, if only their many other duties could be devolved, with most saying dioceses need to place their trust in very capable members of the laity to assume such non-sacramental parish duties.
Unfortunately, it’s often quite hard to identify such skill sets among parishioners these days, never mind persuade people to give up their precious time to help our parish priests.
(I know, too, from my own experience that entrusting a parish to significant lay involvement can bring its own problems!)
Putting aside the age issue for a moment, when you look at the clergy situation across England and Wales it’s actually hard to discern any genuine shortage of men available to say Mass.
Just count how many Catholic priests there are within a 30-mile radius of your own home (a perfectly average daily work commute distance). For most of us there will be at least two or three priests nearby which, by any standards, is something of a luxury, and clearly an issue for better logistics rather than wholesale parish closures.
In recent decades the Catholic Church has also quite rightly encouraged an engagement with Catholics among our immigrant communities by providing Masses in native languages.
In one UK diocese, for example, there are more than 100 monthly Mass slots being provided in some 20 languages, which is a huge strain on clergy resources if we’re claiming a shortage of priests (and it doesn’t do a great deal for the principle of one Catholic family either).
The single, mixed cultural community that is the parish has always been where the faith has found its strength, its marriages, its future Catholics – and of course, its future priests.
Which brings finally me to the most fundamental issue – vocations. It’s very easy to say that the attractions of modern life, the abuse scandals, celibacy and other factors have created a decline of interest from young men in the priesthood, but again the archives of the English Catholic Directory reveal that choosing to serve God has always been a profoundly counter-cultural choice that has only ever attracted a very small number of radical young men.
What is, sadly, all too evident from the records of the past century is that in more recent decades we’ve failed miserably to present the challenges and rewards of the Catholic priesthood in a meaningful and relevant way, and to the right people, especially in parishes.
Which begs the question – if there is some kind of clergy shortage, either now or coming in the future, how can the closing of parishes help that situation, when it’s only through the parishes that new priests will be found?
The hope in many instances is that the newly clustered communities will attract the same number of Catholics, if not more, but evidence on the ground is suggesting that, sadly, the dispersal of our Catholic communities is far more likely to lead to further critical reductions in overall UK Catholic numbers.
As I said at the outset, this level of upheaval is nothing new and in the past has even been a catalyst for some spectacular renewals. If change has to come than it’s vital we all engage in a profoundly honest and open dialogue on this – so on the one hand it’s not acceptable for a bishop to simply ask that we follow his edicts with ‘joy and obedience’, but equally, it’s utterly unreasonable for the laity to irrationally obstruct necessity.
How we fare between those extremes will decide the future of our Church for decades to come.
• Joseph Kelly is CEO of the Universe Media Group, and Editor of The Universe and the Catholic Who’s Who