Do small communities (e.g., TLM) have a future?

A while back, a conversation was initiated by a post by my friend Msgr. Charles Pope about the number of people attending the Extraordinary Form.  My post about it HERE.

At the UK’s best Catholic weekly, the Catholic Herald, there is a offering by a young priest, Fr. Matthew Pittam, who has been serving a small rural parish.  What he says has something to offer to the discussion of the numbers (growing numbers) of people attending mostly or only the Traditional Latin Mass at legitimate churches and chapels.

What future is there for small communities within the Catholic Church? [I think most will agree that TLM communities are small communities.]

Rural parishes like mine are struggling because of a drop in vocations and a lack of imagination

For almost the last five years I have ministered in a small rural parish in the Midlands. Twelve villages, outlying farms and countryside comprise the parish and many people travel long distances to attend Mass.  [That applies to TLM communities too.] If you were a bishop planning for Catholic provision today you probably wouldn’t open a church here, but thanks to the historic conversion of Rudolph Fielding, 8th Earl of Denbigh, the parish was endowed and established.  [“endowed”… I assume this means that lots of money was provided to see to the parish’s future.]

Today the parish is lively and vibrant, although a normal Sunday would see attendances at Mass which are just below 100. [This probably describes many TLMs.] We have a choir, full serving team, an active (and youthful) Union of Catholic Mothers and regular young peoples activities. [Sound familiar?] There is a daily Mass, weekly adoration and the full cycle of the liturgical year is celebrated in all its fullness. Our musical tradition is flourishing and unusually for a Catholic parish, everyone sings. There are good links with the local village communities and other churches, as well a longstanding relationship with the village C of E school and care homes. The school is probably unique in that there is a regular Mass for Catholic children and a Catholic teacher is employed to provide catechesis. In many ways the parish punches well above its weight.

When the secular Parish Council recently published its Parish Plan, St Joseph’s was regarded as a valuable and important community asset. This is in a community where so many assets, such as the shop, have long since disappeared.

The challenge
Whilst our parish may be active and full of life, when it comes to numbers of parishioners we could easily be seen as non-viable. The Catholic news is full of stories of church closures, amalgamations of parishes and reorganisation. I know of parishes nearby which are much larger than we are, where Masses have been lost and where they now share a priest with a neighbouring community. What future is there then for small communities within the Catholic Church?

Bishops have an unenviable job when faced with declining numbers of clergy. It would be sad however if they were they were to see the future solely in terms of financial viability and the ability of the faithful to travel to Mass at other centres. A church such as mine is a community at the heart of the community. We have a strong visible and emotional presence in the villages that we serve and this would be lost if local Catholics were expected to travel to a larger church in a neighbouring town.

The Supermarket Model
Over the last thirty years supermarket chains have established larger and larger stores on out of town sites away from local communities. [A priest friend, deceased at too young an age, once had the nearby parishes of St. Martin and St. Walburga.  He thought that if they were forced to merge he would call it St. Walmart.] Each time a new branch was opened it seemed to be bigger and better than the last. However, the tide has now begun to turn and many large out of town sites remain undeveloped. The big six chains have recognised again the value of local convenience stores and this has represented a massive growth in the sector over the last few years. This is also coupled with a desire amongst consumers to buy produce with local provenance.

[NB] It appears that in seeking to amalgamate parishes and create bigger centres, the church is adopting a model of ministry just at the point when the commercial and retail world is abandoning it.

Should we therefore think again about the value of smaller churches and the missional possibilities that local communities present in the work of The New Evangelisation?


Read the rest of the piece over there.  And, please do read it, especially if you are going to comment here.

I saw a connection.  I bring it to your attention.


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  1. Augustine says:

    As Nassim Taleb so brilliantly stated, some things do not scale, even good things. Fr. Matthew seems to be onto the same conclusion. However, what works in the country side, where communities are usually more stable, is unlikely to work in the cities, where communities are much more mobile and people not only don’t seem to stay long enough to become part of the local community, but they don’t seem to care to or know how to. If recent history is any indication, where the family goes, so goes the Church. As the family has been decimated and eviscerated in affluent countries, especially in Europe, even in Catholic Europe, so has the Church. IOW, it’s not what Fr. Matthew is sowing, but what he’s reaping: the good fruits being reaped were sowed in loving families in a solidary community.

    Pax Christi

  2. Kerry says:

    “Bang. Zoom!!”…

    “The problem is we often now see our churches as Mass centres, rather than communities of the faithful. Catholics urgently need to regain that sense of belonging, commitment and sacrifice when it comes to the parish otherwise, being relegated to just a Mass centre, we may be the next to face the chop!”

  3. Moro says:

    I think for some TLM communities there is a big risk. I have been at churches that have a weekly TLM and confessions but not much else. The geographic distance of parishoners makes activities during the week rather difficult and often times there is a rotation of priests who come and say one mass per month and don’t get involved. This could be because they are retired or perhaps have another assignment. While I’m thankful for what I have, this experience just goes to show just having a mass for every Sunday and Holy Day is not enough for a health spiritual life. All the more reason to push for personal parishes when possible.

  4. JARay says:

    I have a cousin who lives in such a village. Unfortunately the priest died suddenly. I knew him well. We were friends. The bishop had no one to send to replace the priest but suddenly, a retired priest was found so the church was able to remain open. And the Anglican vicar of the neighbouring village became a Catholic and finally was ordained a priest. And so the little village church obtained a new priest and the communities of the two villages have grown closer together.
    God has ways of supplying, when human beings cannot see what to do.

  5. taffymycat says:

    thats a fabulous insightful piece. i like things local—local control and input because people know who is who and at the local level people make decisions that are appropriate to the uniqueness of the community. we all know how one size fits all big brother models really miss the mark in most areas. so the anonymity of large church centers doesnt encourage a feeling of community as the author notes.

  6. Nathan says:

    Fr. Pittam makes some very cogent observations, and I do think they apply well to the TLM groups associated with OF parishes. I wonder if there are some at least partially relevant historical analogies we could use to develop alternatives for bishops and for the small parishes/Latin Mass groups themselves.

    The demographic decline of both priests and practicing Catholics in North America and Europe, as well as the increasing social marginalization of both Catholics themselves and Catholic thought there might, to a degree, lead to an analogy with the the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, with its attendant social breakdown and widespread loss of faith and Catholic practice. What God raised at that time was St Benedict and the monasteries, which provided both spiritual and temporal order to the chaos. (Some recent Catholic writers have talked about this as “the Benedict option” if I’m not mistaken.) The implication is that Catholics, especially those tied to the TLM, might be better off in communities centered around a parish/monastery/institution of some sort, in which they would both worship and live. A second possibility coming out of that would be a push to revitalize the Franciscan/Dominican model of sending out something along the lines of friars to assist parishes and Latin Mass communities, especially shrinking parishes, in revitalizing both faith and Catholic culture. The difficulty with this would seem to be both the time lag and finding the religious to carry this out.

    I suppose a second historical analogy might be akin to the life of Catholics in the US western expansion. The bishops (and the Holy See) treated these areas a mission territories, with largely lay-run parishes and circuit-riding priests to offer the Holy Mass and provide the Sacraments as they could. This would, I think, be more akin to what St John Paul and Pope Benedict saw as the New Evangelization, where lay Catholics would take a leadership role in doing more in both parish life and example for fallen away or non-Catholics. I think the difficulty in this is both disciplinary (how do you make sure that orthodoxy and charity are preserved) and in the increasing ignorance of lay Catholics (yes, even in the TLM communities, I hate to admit) about the fullness of the Faith.

    However, I’m not sure that the real solution will likely be successful from the top down. It seems that God, in His providence, has in the past rebuilt the Church from the bottom up.

    In Christ,

  7. Toan says:

    Something, I think, is missing from the discussion of declining numbers of priests: An expected steep decline in the number of parishioners in the coming decades.

    For those of us who attend to large parishes, how many mass-goers each Sunday are aged 50+? At my parish where hundreds go to each Mass, I’d guess 90%, maybe more. In a few decades from now that all the 50+ will be “asleep”. Who will be left? Probably the 10% of current Mass-goers, plus (hopefully) their children and converts. This is a MUCH smaller number of Mass-goers than we currently see.

    As that gradually happens many parishes will “consolidate”. Even many consolidated parishes will become small communities, I suspect. At that time, I think TLM small communities–as with any community that (1) has more babies and (2) embraces Catholic teaching enough to pass it on faithfully to the next generation–will have a much more significant presence relative to other Catholic communities.

  8. Fr AJ says:

    I have to agree with Toan. The wheel’s are coming off. In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, considered a Catholic haven, the numbers are staggering. From 2000 to 2015: infant baptisms down 47%; marriages down 53%; first Communions down 41%; confirmations down 31%; elementary school enrollment down 46%. Not looking good for the future.

  9. hwriggles4 says:

    Fr AJ:

    In 2014, I attended the National Catholic Singles Conference, and went to a special 1 day seminar given by the President of I went in part because I am involved in men’s ministry, and I am a single Catholic myself. One statistic reminded me of your post:

    Catholic marriages are way down. A statistic was brought up that in the Archdiocese of Chicago, Catholic marriages have declined at least 40% since 2004. I’m sure in my diocese (I live in Texas) marriages have declined, and our pastor even mentioned this a few years ago that he was disappointed that our parish (which is close to a central area of town with adjacent businesses) does not have as many weddings as it once did.

    However, I do know several faithful Young Adult Catholics who have gotten married within the past 15 years and the majority have solid marriages, and at least three children. (I do know some with more than three, but when a man and a woman get married for the first time between 35 and 40 the natural law gives two or three as an average.) Some of them homeschool, some do not, and many of them are good examples of solid marriages. I do see some hope there.

    As far as the aging population, I’m sorry to say that most Catholics I know who are over 45 and attend weekly Mass are poorly catechized, unless they had some kind of a “reversion story” or they studied their way into the Church (and went through a rock solid RCIA). Many are “clock in, clock out” Catholics (I’m not criticizing – I was one of those through most of my late teens until I was about 27, when my “reversion story” began as a re-tread college student who accidentally stumbled on a solid Catholic Student Center at a State University in Texas). If the “clock in, clock out” Catholics take the time to learn their faith, our parishes would definitely be more fruitful.

    I am fortunate that my parish attracts parishioners of all ages – the young, the old, and all races, and it is a vibrant Novus Ordo parish with three good priests who are manly and strong, even though at the larger Mass on Sunday morning it is disappointing to see 20%-25% leave after communion.

  10. rmichaelj says:

    Another consideration is where are the new priests to come from. Does a supersize congregation bring forth the same number of priestly canidates as a smaller local or TLM parish? If not then the consolidation of parishes may lead to a worsening priest shortage later on.

  11. Hidden One says:

    How many present seminarians are from that small parish? How many priests have been ordained from that parish in the last ten years? If the answer to both of these is lots, it’s probably fine….

  12. Mary of Carmel says:

    This article is absolutely on target. I watched my home parish become a cluster, and then the very life and character of it fell away. I felt as though I had lost my home. There was no more community unity after the merger–absolutely killed off–devotions, too. The priest wants two days off, then wants one weekday Mass per parish and one Sunday Mass each as well. Felt this would achieve balance. So, all 3 parishes are empty and closed Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays (except Saturday evening for the obligation Mass). Hardly any reason to have a parish.
    If a funeral happens at any of the parishes, then no Mass for the day at that particular parish. Divisions and back-biting between the three parishes are common. Felt like life on a battlefield.

    Good news is that I joined a TLM parish and am growing in the Faith like never before. The bad news is that the TLM parish is scattered because everyone comes from a long distance away, so the continuity just isn’t there like in my old parish neighborhood. Fortunately, one of the members is near me. We are the only two in the parish that live closest to the church.

    It is hard, and yes, small community life is extremely important! Along with the high rate of divorce and the dispersion and destruction of the family, the Devil has succeeded at isolating many, many souls. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, save us!
    I sometimes feel like a wanderer.

  13. Pcito says:

    Often left out in these discussions is simple demographics. In the U.S., the people of once Catholic havens up North have moved South. For every parish closure or consolidation up North, we build or open a mission down South. We even had one church built brick-by-brick from a closed Northern parish. Add to that the booming Hispanic population. Twenty-five years ago, my small rural parish had a couple of hundred native English speakers and a few score Spanish families. Now it has 3200 registered familes, all but 200 Hispanic (and probably 3000 more unregistered Hispanics), which is why we’ve opened two missions. We average 10+ baptisms every WEEK, and the number of yearly First Communions is approaching the number of yearly baptisms (if you account for the 7-year difference, our “retention rate” is 80% and climbing). Our Confirmations have doubled in five years. We have four priests from the parish ordained in the past ten years, two in seminary, and a dozen young men in our vocations club. Nearby rural parishes that do not have a Spanish population are aging and not growing.

    Demographics is destiny. Alas, I fully expect that our growth will plateau at a certain point in the coming years, and as the immigrant population becomes more secular and Americanized, I anticipate smaller families with a subsequent drop in sacraments. We have a good foundation for generations to come, but there is a certain inertia to demographics that will eventually outweigh all our plans, programs, devotions, and beautiful liturgies.

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