Catholic Churches, especially in the former predominantly Catholic areas in the Northeast, are closing or merging and have been doing so for the past decade. Some dioceses and some pastors are doing a better job of keeping parishioners informed than others, but the approach of those involved does not change the reality. We have more churches than we need for the number of practicing Catholics. So, demographics is the primary driving force behind the decisions. People understand this.
However, behind the factual reality is the deeper, emotional and spiritual one. For many Catholics, generations have been brought up in a certain parish. People know the pews and statues as well as they know the set up of their own homes. A church became a sacred place for families. Children were baptized, marriages witnessed, graduations celebrated, sacraments received and loved ones buried in the same sacred space. So we are not merely closing buildings, we are separating people from the places where they met God in good times and bad. Everyone knows that God is everywhere, not only in our churches; but we also know that there are some serious places when encounters with God happen. The touches and connections are deeper than “going to Mass.”
Leaving these sacred spaces is like leaving a family home after generations have lived in it. This experience requires more attention than providing the factual and financial picture to parishioners. When the dust settles of what must be done, care must be taken to nurture, nourish and celebrate the sacred encounters with God that have taken place in the parish church. Attention must be paid to the tearing in the soul that accompanies the closing of doors that used to be open all day.
Parishioners need assistance in moving with gratitude through this upheaval. Gratitude feeds the soul and gives it the strength to move into the future. Individually, each parishioner can review the times when the church was the gathering place for them, for the times when God became real, when a sense of the sacred went deeper than words could explain. Together people can review the public occasions when the church was a place for community, for praising God and entreating God, for meeting God in the light and seeking God in the dark. Churches were the places where people went to survive and in them many found the strength to endure and to hope again. Remember how filled the churches were after the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11.
The great challenge and responsibility for all who have known the experience of a local parish church and have a history of growing up within that reality is to give the same opportunity to the next generation. Dwindling church attendance is not inevitable. Pope Francis has been calling for a new evangelization since he became Pope. Have we become so jaundiced in accepting that the rite of passage is that kids stop going to church when they grow up?
Pope Francis’ basis for bringing the faith to others is not force or fear; it is joy. Faith is spread by being attractive. The young need to see and hear the place that churches have held in our lives. Many young people believe in God and in spirituality, but not in organized religion. Sociologists have many reasons for this phenomenon. Analysis probably won’t change things. Faith does not pass to others through the head. It is a matter of the heart. The closing of a parish church wouldn’t be painful if the sacred place had not become settled deeply in the hearts of its parishioners.
Our memories hold one place but we must find even deeper realities of holy encounters with God; and we must help the next generation to find the beauty and strength of a connection with others in the search for God in their lives. Sadness of a closing of a church can lead to bitterness and blame or gratitude and commitment. The opportunity to make a conscious choice is offered to us.
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.