Friday, June 3, 2011

Another Heartland Missive: Dying Catholic Parishes and Dreams about What Might Have Been

More heartland missives: one of the interesting topics we've discussed with some of Steve's cousins--sort of discussed, since we generally try to avoid being too direct about political or theological observations they might find uncomfortable--is the closing of one parish after another in many dioceses in Minnesota.  Readers of this blog might recall that this was part of the story of the super-expensive anti-gay marriage c.d. that the bishops of Minnesota sent out to every Catholic household in the state on the eve of the last elections.  

Right after the Minnesota Catholic bishops, led by Nienstedt of the twin cities, sent out that video (never disclosing where they got the money to produce and mail it), Nienstedt announced the closing and merger of a number of parishes in his diocese.  His reason for closing-merging churches: lack of funds to maintain the closed churches.

And so it was interesting, the other day, to listen to a group of Steve's elderly cousins (all around or over 80) talking about what they expect to happen in their small-town German Catholic parishes in the next few years.  They anticipate many church closings.  

And they're sad about this--not so much angry and resistant, as resigned to the inevitable.  What makes them sad, above all, is that each of these churches is their church.  That is, these churches are family churches that have long had a very personal significance for their families.  In many cases, their families built the parish churches that will be closed.

Literally built them, as in, did the mason work and carpentry to construct the church.  There's a longstanding tradition of relatively strong lay ownership in these rural German Catholic parishes in places like Minnesota.  The paternal side of Steve's family (and that's where the cousins about whom I'm talking here tie in) have a tradition that his ancestors did literally build the parish church in whose cemetery his immigrant ancestors on that side of his family are buried.

And several years ago when there was a reunion of Steve's family in that parish, I remember the pastor saying that he had found being in the parish a delight, since nothing is ever broken or in need of repair for more than a day or so.  The pastor said that he doesn't even have to notify the parish council of the need to fix something.  The men of the parish watch to see what's in need of repair, and without fanfare or without even asking the pastor, they simply fix it.

This behavior reflects a tradition of lay ownership that these German Catholics brought to this country.  In the formative period of the Catholic church in areas in which these folks settled in the U.S., many of these parishes actually had vestries that controlled what happened to church property--vestries that maintained their right to override the decisions of the parish priest.  On the maternal side of Steve's family, a history of the parish in which that set of his immigrant ancestors lived in Iowa states that the parish vestry (which included his immigrant ancestor) locked the parish priest out of the rectory when he tried to overrule their decision about the disposition of some parish property.

That tradition of strong lay ownership and lay involvement in any and all Catholic parishes in the U.S. is, of course, long since gone.  It's still there in a vestigial sense in the pride that the men of the small parish near St. Cloud where Steve's paternal immigrant ancestors are buried take in the upkeep of the church.  And it's there in the resigned sadness his cousins feel about the inevitable closing and merger of the churches in which their families have long worshiped.  

But they recognize that there are few options except closing and merging parishes, when the number of priests is dwindling rapidly, and when one priest now serves a number of parishes in an increasingly broad area.  A cousin of Steve's whom we visited yesterday an hour west of the twin cities tells us that her parish priest now has to serve four parishes in her area.

These parishes presupposed a culture that is just no longer there.  This was a culture in which almost all families had 10 or more children, almost all of whom remained in the area around their parents' farm to continue the tradition of farming.  Traditionally, a child or two in many families would also enter the priesthood or religious life.

It is now extremely rare, in the current generation of these families, for families to have more than a few children.  As a result, the number of people in these parishes is dwindling, and in hardly any of the families are the children choosing to remain on the farm.  They're moving to the cities, leaving the parishes in which they were born with a graying and diminishing congregation.  There is no need for all the churches that once served rural areas, hence the decision to close and merge churches.

But the other factor that is driving these managerial decisions of bishops is, of course, the decision from the top of the Catholic church to keep the clerical system in place as it now exists--with a priesthood that excludes women or married men.  And it's not entirely lost on Steve's elderly faithful Catholic cousins that they are losing their churches because of the decision of Rome to maintain a mutable, historically conditioned form of pastoral ministry that no longer serves their local parishes very well.

Yesterday, I chose to broach that topic with the elderly cousin we were visiting, whose parish priest serves four parishes.  This woman is a retired teacher who strikes me as informed and thoughtful, and I thought I'd test the waters by noting, when she told me about the probability that some local parishes will soon be closed since the pastor can't possibly expand the number of parishes he serves, that it might be otherwise.  If Rome chose to reconsider the clerical system we now have.

When I observed this, her eyes lit up and she said, "Can we talk?"  And talk we did.  We wondered what kind of pastoral concern for the church refuses to see the large number of women and married folks the Spirit is calling to pastoral ministry, while the Vatican claims there's a vocation crisis and this crisis is causing priestless parishes to be closed.

And as I pointed out, given the obvious love for their churches of people who have lived in these parishes for many years now, why would a sane, pastorally sensitive church choose to ignore the possibility that the Spirit is calling people right within a parish itself to serve the parish through pastoral ministry?  Why not build on that love of people for their local churches, and on their intricate knowledge of their own local communities?

Why not, in other words, revive the Catholic church by empowering Catholics throughout the country, within their own local parish communities, and thereby reigniting their faith, rather than imposing priests brought in from outside those communities, who have to be imported as long as we limit ordination to (ostensibly) celibate males?  Who knows: in permitting each local community more latitude to choose its pastoral leader and to control its own affairs--to express its unique local version of a faith that is grounded in Catholic teaching and values--we might even succeed in reviving these dying local communities.

I'm speaking here of the broader communities, not merely the parishes.  By empowering lay Catholics within their parishes and respecting the sensus fidelium, by affirming and supporting their deep historically conditioned sense of ownership of their local churches, we might then even succeed in jump-starting the economic and social life of communities whose youth are moving away, because they find few opportunities to build creative, economically vibrant lives in their rural or small-town communities.

Steve's cousin and I are, I know, dreaming.  But sometimes dreams are preludes to a more humane life.  If we don't scorn and quench them, as though they're futile imaginings that have nothing to do with the future of the world in which we live.

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