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Inside NCR

Parishes signs of big changes in church

NCR has published occasional articles about the closing of churches, especially inner-city churches, and the frequent amalgamation of parishes into one big, "viable" parish. These have usually been stories of discontent, frequently of defiance. The stories have also reflected signs of the times.

After several such articles, a sameness sets in. There is a pattern. Broken-down neighborhoods. Dwindled, drained congregations. Lack of money. Lack of priests. Yet readers continue to write asking us to investigate their particular city or parish. They are often angry. They blame the bishop or other clergy for unfairness or insensitivity, for leaving the wrong parish church open and closing the wrong one, usually their own.

A reader from the Midwest wrote: "In our diocese parishes are closing all over the place. We are told this is because of the shortage of priests and because it is burdensome for our aging priest population to serve two parishes simultaneously -- as if you can't have a parish without a priest (good thing the churches at Ephesus and Philippi didn't know that)."

This writer blames the bishop for his "top-down, exclusive, authoritarian methods." Priests are leaving in disgust, the writer goes on, while priests are being brought in from India, Poland and elsewhere to "man" vacant parishes. The writer suggests that "if there are as many people in pain about this sort of thing in other dioceses, you [NCR] would be providing needed solace" by writing articles and letting the world know the abandoned parishes "are not alone."

Another reader sent clips from two Boston newspapers following Cardinal Bernard Law's announcement of a merger of three churches in Ipswich. One is a Polish national church whose parishioners are unhappy with the cardinal. "He wants to pull my church out from under me. I'll pray on the beach," John Krajeski told the Boston Sunday Herald. He added that his 91-year-old mother was planning to leave the church in protest.

"Sadness is a part of such a change for people of faith," Law wrote in a letter announcing the changes. "So too is hope a part of this moment," he added. Right now the sadness is winning. According to the Boston Sunday Globe, parishioners argued that "the church is the keystone in holding together community, heritage and ethnic traditions. For many families, the church has been a chain linking the generations. It is where funerals for grandparents were held, where parents were married, children and grandchildren baptized."

These are just samples of the frustrations expressed and the appeals to NCR to expose the misbehaving bishops or the church at large or the changing culture that led the better-off to build spanking new churches in neat suburbs while the old ones, half-empty, decay in decaying ghettos.

NCR can't respond to them all. There are too many such tales. And there is too much complexity and historical baggage and mixed motives to risk easy judgments about who is knave and who is martyr -- and where in all this might be the Holy Spirit who, we were always told, would guide the church.

But we can say and often have said what may be too obvious and up too close to be clearly seen: A great change is taking place. Insofar as one can judge spiritual phenomena by the usual human criteria, great things are happening in, yes, New Jersey. Presentation Parish in Upper Saddle River is a mind-boggling hive of activity catering to body, brain, psyche and soul. A great many people are involved and caught up in the excitement. They have a cause, a challenge, a streak of meaning in a confused world. They are lay people. There is one priest, the pastor, who is 65, with knees caving in. There are few if any young priests to take his place: to do the part in this great venture that for nearly two millennia Catholics were told only the priest could do.

Presentation is not an isolated parish. NCR's Oct. 18, 1996, issue contained an extensive feature by Managing Editor Tom Roberts on St. Mary's Parish in Colts Neck, N.J., and in our Feb. 28 issue, Editor-at-Large Arthur Jones had a major feature on Corpus Christi Parish in Rochester, N.Y. We are getting letters suggesting other parishes as models for the future, and we'll get to some of them. Most of these proudly proclaim the ever-expanding role of the laity, who can do almost everything.

But here we run into the big change that few seem to talk about. Century after century, the priest was the heart of the parish, even the heart of the wider church, not because he was handsome or kind or diplomatic or smart but, the church taught, because he had special powers that went to the core of being Catholic, especially power to hear confessions and offer Mass. Whether the Mass was seen as primarily sacrificial or -- since the Vatican Council -- eucharistic, only the ordained priest could offer it. Catholicism is primarily a eucharistic community: Left, right and center seem to agree on that.

We could say, as Christians usually say under stress, that God will provide. But whatever God is providing, it isn't enough priests for the priestless parishes all over the place. Theology therefore seems in need of catching up with reality. If a parish -- or church -- of the laity is adequate for God's people, then it's no longer a eucharistic church, unless we bend the meaning of many hallowed words and concepts, including Mass, priest, even Catholicism.

The ongoing, unfinished story will no doubt zig and zag from the forlorn ghetto church to the bustling suburban compound; an ongoing story of anguish and hope -- but then, since Day 1, certainty and neatness were never characteristics of any church Jesus Christ might be remotely associated with.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 1997