On All Souls Day New York Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan announced a list of parishes in his diocese which will “merge” with other parishes. At some of the parishes which will now have two or more churches in their parish, there will be sacraments celebrated at both churches. At a great many of these parish churches, the sacraments won’t be regularly celebrated again. I can’t speak to the details of fiscal and pastoral decisions in the Archdiocese of New York primarily, of course, because our family does not receive the sacraments in that Archdiocese. I can, however, speak to experience of having your parish clustered with another, having to share a pastor with two other parishes to avoid “official” closure, as will apparently happen with some New York parishes, because I’ve seen it happen firsthand in my former diocese.
It isn’t fun to know that there will be one Mass offered at your parish this week, and if you don’t make it you’d better hope you can find one at a reasonable time elsewhere. There is no joy in knowing that parish life is limited in no small part because there is no priest in residence at a “dying” parish. I’ve also known friends who have lost their parish entirely, just like many New Yorkers will, to closure for reasons similar to those that Cardinal Dolan is grappling with in New York. I have a lot of empathy for the people who will see their beloved spiritual home close its doors, and I understand the desire of some who have reported in the news media that they intend to “fight” to keep their parish open. At the end of the day, I’m not sure how much good such “fighting” might do. For every parish on the closure list that is spared the axe because of popular maneuvering, many others will be closed that objectively deserved to stay open just as much and meant as much to many souls.
In a post from May of 2013 here on Life At 25, I rejoiced at the wonderful things that the Holy Spirit is doing here in the Diocese of Knoxville. In that post, I noted in a special way the large number of seminarians that we are blessed to have in formation for such a “small diocese,” and of course since that post was written, we’ve ordained four new priests with four more to come in June. Our class of 23 candidates for the permanent diaconate will minister to others in part by helping many of those new priests in their ministries. Our diocese may be small, but we are alive and vibrant and mighty in faith. There is a lesson for us, however, in what we see happening in New York and what has already happened in many dioceses around the country.
One person who has been rather outspoken in his thesis of why the New York parish closings are happening is Father George Rutler, pastor of Holy Innocents in Manhattan, which was on the list of parishes that could close, but was spared. You might have seen some of Father Rutler’s wonderful television program Christ In the City on EWTN. I won’t give commentary on all that Father Rutler had to say in his recent interview with Aleteia‘s John Burger, I think the reader should read it and come to their own conclusions. There was one thing that I found in Father Rutler’s words that rang true and clear, and is something that we all must remember:
Among the factors is a decline in Catholic life. One statistic I was given recently is the Catholic population of New York City is just about the same as it was 70 years ago. There’s not a decline in Catholic population; there’s a decline in Catholic life, and there are all kinds of reasons for that.
Father Rutler goes on to explain that the shortage of priests in the Archdiocese of New York and elsewhere is another major factor in the decision to close and/or merge so many parishes, and he discusses a little of his own views in that regard. What he says about the decline in Catholic life is noteworthy because of the decline in vocations. In other words, where there is a decline in Catholic life, what the Holy Father rightly calls “lukewarm faith,” it will probably not be long before you begin to see a shortage of priests, and eventually a closing of parishes. It is probably fair to say that if there were no shortage of priests in the Archdiocese of New York, many of those parishes slated for merger or closure would not be closing at all.
When Cardinal Dolan visited the Diocese of Knoxville for our Eucharistic Congress on September 14th of last year, one of the many things he said was that he looks to the Diocese of Knoxville because “the future of the Catholic Church in the United States is in the South and in the West.” We are blessed here in the Diocese of Knoxville to have a local Church that is growing and thriving, and which has many new vocations. We’ve gotten that way because we have a very vibrant Catholic life in our diocese and we aren’t afraid to share our faith with others. We can keep growing and fostering growth and vocations by passing on the faith with zeal to the next generation and sharing it with others. It is when we begin to take our Church for granted that we plant the seeds of priest shortages and parish closings, so let us prayerfully resolve never to do this, but to hand on the faith “once for all delivered to the saints (cf. Jude 1:3).”
Parents, pray with your children! The seeds of faith are planted in the home, because you see the Servant of God Father Peyton was always right when he said “the family that prays together stays together.” Families that pray together also grow the Church.