I have now read Philip Lawler’s recent book
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 6: A Patrimony Squandered. Lawler seems from afar to be channeling my own thinking. This chapter deals a great deal with liturgical practice, church architecture, music, etc. He is dead on right. One of the points he makes at the beginning of the chapter comes from an experience he had of entering St. Peter’s Basilica. As he gazed at the amazing space, he had the reaction, “This is all mine!”. EXACTLY. Our tradition is our patrimony. Stories of the saints are our family history. Our liturgy is our very flesh and bone: we are our rites. When we squander our inheritance, we do terrible damage to our identity. Recovering our patrimony is an urgent task pressing on us all. We all have a role in this mission.
Anyway, here is the excerpt from the end of Chapter 6. My emphases and comments.
Parish closings are commonplace in America today, and prelates are praised for their smooth handling of what is seen as an “inevitable” contraction of the Church. A question for the bishops who subscribe to such a defeatist view. Why is it inevitable?
The closing of a parish is an admission of defeat. If the faithful could support a parish on this site at one time, why can they not support a parish today? American cities are dotted with magnificent church structures, built with the nickels and dimes that hard-pressed immigrant families could barely afford to donate. Today the affluent grandchildren of those immigrants are unwilling to keep current with the parish fuel bills and, more to the point, to encourage their sons to consider a life of priestly ministry. [See the connection? That’s why the vocation prayer I have promoted is so important. HERE and HERE]
There are times, admittedly, when parishes are doomed by demographic shifts. There are city neighborhoods in which two Catholic churches were built, literally across the street from one another: one for the benefit of French-speaking families, the other for their German-speaking neighbors. Such cases, however, account for only a small proportion of the parish closings that we see in the US today. More typically, the parish slated for closing is located in a comfortable, populous neighborhood, with no other Catholic church particularly close at hand and no special reason why the community that supported a thriving parish in 1960 cannot maintain the same parish now, fifty years later. No reason, that is, except the decline of the Catholic faith. Parishes close because Catholic families don’t care enough about the Faith to keep them open.
Why don’t families care enough? Why is there such a widespread indifference to the treasures of the Catholic faith? At least one powerful factor is surely the attitude that lay Catholics have observed in their priests and their bishops. If the clergy, the stewards of the patrimony, are content to act as bystanders as the Catholic patrimony is degraded, their indifference becomes infectious.
In other instances, the parishes close because although the neighborhood is still populous, the Catholic families have moved out and the new residents come from different religious backgrounds or come without religious beliefs. In such cases, we are told, the Church must accept the new reality and realize that the neighborhood cannot support a parish. But why make such a concession? Why should we admit that it is impossible to convert the new residents to our faith? A Catholic fired with apostolic zeal, discovering a neighborhood in which the population is mostly non-Catholic, should set out to convert the people, not to close the church. In at least a few cases with which I am personally familiar, parishioners have asked their bishop to leave the parish open for a few years to give them an opportunity to build up a new model of evangelical outreach, to bring new converts into the parish and make it financially viable once again. When those appeals have been rejected, the parishioners have concluded, not illogically, that their bishop does not share their trust in the winning power of the Gospel.
When St. Patrick, having escaped slavery in Ireland, arrived again as a missionary, the country was pagan. By the time he died, the country was Catholic. He came into a “neighborhood”—an entire nation—that could not support a parish. But he did not accept what lesser souls might have considered inevitable. Instead, he changed the conditions of the neighborhood, and soon a parish was created. And another and another and another. During his years of ministry in the once-pagan country, he is said to have consecrated over three hundred bishops. In Ireland today there are seven dioceses—not parishes, dioceses—that trace their foundation to St. Patrick’s missionary work.
If as a bishop and missionary St. Patrick could convert an entire nation, why can’t his successors at least strive to match his success? We have material advantages that would have left St. Patrick gasping: the ability to travel hundreds of miles in a day, the capacity for instant communication across the globe. Is the content of the Catholic faith less viable today than it was in the fifth century? Is the guidance of the Holy Spirit less valuable? I know how St. Patrick would answer those questions.
In another section, Lawler makes an excellent point that I had not thought of. The Church’s pastors started squandering and destroying our patrimony right around the time that the birth rate began to drop with the rise of the sexual revolution, contraception and abortion. Here’s how he puts it.
Incidentally, the general appreciation of our Catholic heritage began to lag at roughly the same time that the American birth rate went into a steep decline, eventually dipping below the “replacement rate” at which population would hold steady without immigration. Is it surprising that we, as a people, stopped thinking so much about what we would pass along to our children, during the same years that we stopped having so many children—that we turned our attention away from our heritage, as we chose not to have so many heirs?