In 1980, when I was eight years old, I stood in a beautiful Catholic Church watching tears pool in my mother’s eyes and slowly run down her cheeks. She did not wipe them away. It was one of the first times I remember seeing her cry. The church she grew up in, in which she married my father, was closing to make way for a new interstate highway.
A few years later, as a journalism intern, I wrote my first major published story on the closing of another church in that same neighborhood – this time it was the lovely Italian church down the street. It was during a first wave of Catholic Church closings and diocesan reorganization in Pittsburgh. It was 1992.
No matter the reason, watching bishops and priests decide to shutter churches and disperse parishes can be particularly painful for Catholics. Often parishioners of closing churches studied in the church school. Families celebrated cherished milestones – Baptisms, First Holy Communions, Confirmations, weddings and funerals – beneath the church’s rafters. There are memories of Midnight Christmas Masses, Easter Vigils and myriad community events and gatherings. Parishes are real, living communities, often centered around a few buildings, a courtyard and lawn.
Like so many dioceses around the United States, Pittsburgh is again slogging through a reorganization of resources and assets. This time not only to address a dwindling and relocating number of practicing Catholics, but to brace for a loss of Catholic priests to lead its flock. The plan calls for closing churches and schools, combining other churches and schools, re-imagining the distribution of priests, growing the role of deacons and selling off superfluous real estate. As anyone would imagine, the effort is being met with anger, bewilderment and resistance on all fronts.
No one wants their parish to close – emotions are high, especially where Pittsburgh’s landmark churches are concerned. There are fears about what might happen to those sacred buildings – in recent memory, one cathedral sold into private hands became a micro brew and restaurant, the brew works itself taking the place of the altar. Another was purchased by the SSPX for its Masses. Others for swanky, unique apartments and lofts. The one my mother cried over in 1980 is now a venue for weddings and corporate parties, the rectory a serene city inn (the highway planned changed, and the building was never demolished).
This time, though, there’s much more at stake than beautiful landmark churches in urban neighborhoods. The Diocese needs to consolidate. Its retiring the old parish K-8 school model in favor of regional elementary/middle schools and kindergarten/preschools. Some parish school buildings will host the early elementary schools, others 1-8. No one seems to be happy at all with the decisions made to date – kids from one school don’t want to go to the others building, parents are complaining about additional driving distance, and alumni are more than upset that long-held sports rivalries will end.
We’ve only really worked through one section of the Diocese so far. Everyone seems to be worried about something. And everyone seems to have forgotten about the real reason parishes and Churches exist at all – to worship God.
We are human beings living in a human world. Things within the Catholic Church in the United States are changing, and sadly not for the better. Only about half of those who call themselves Catholics attend Mass regularly. Fewer give regularly in the weekly collection basket. Commitments to the priesthood are low, and it seems younger priests often reconsider their oaths after being ordained. Priests are needed in administrative capacity as well as for pastors – our parish priest is retired, but was appointed administrator when our pastor took a leave of absence. When he developed a back problem this week, he had to call more than eight priests just to find a substitute for one Sunday Mass. Fewer and fewer families are sending their kids to parish schools. American Catholicism is shrinking.
In many ways, the necessity of reorganization in all dioceses is a problem we Catholics made ourselves. We want the Church to be there for us, but we don’t want to be there for it. We bellyache about fundraisers, complain when asked to volunteer, we don’t support the religious staff, and carry on about how the Church needs to get with the times. I’m amazed sometimes that there still is a Catholic Church in the United States.
But it comes down to this – being Catholic is NOT about what building you worship in. It’s not about not liking the priest assigned to your parish, or not being able to carry on a basketball rivalry with the school across town. It’s about GOD. it’s about respecting the teachings of Catholicism and being active in spreading God’s love within our human world.
None of this is easy – focusing on God and trying to truly be a good Catholic is not easy. Neither is guiding a diocese of churches, schools, hospitals, monasteries, cemeteries, community centers, shelters, etc., with many human issues – economics, logistics, funding, facilities management, public relations, municipal relations, regulations, and so on.
But these are all human problems and concerns. We too often confuse the human part of the Church with God himself. I can’t understand the stories I’ve been hearing of families taking their children out of Catholic school and enrolling them in public because the reorganization of their parish didn’t turn out quite as they expected. Of others church hopping because their beloved pastor was moved somewhere his help was needed more. Or even others who refuse to go to Mass at a different church building because of some old grade school rivalry where we didn’t talk to the people from such and such parish.
Catholicism is about GOD. It’s about this Holy Week we just began, and the sacrifice Jesus Christ made to save us from ourselves. How can we tell Jesus, who suffered the ultimate fate, that we aren’t willing to move to a new church building, welcome a new priest, or send our children to a better equipped school facility? Church reorganization is inevitable. With fewer Catholics, and fewer religious, we must re-evaluate our sustainability and act accordingly.
It’s not about our feelings of loss, our inability to understand “why did they do it that way?,” or our annoyance at the overall process and its demands on our personal comfort. It’s about running a Godly institution in an unGodly world. If we don’t understand that, or refuse to understand that, perhaps we should reflect on why we are Catholic. Is it for God or is it for our own comfort?