More on Church Growth

Thinking outside the box about what our Church has now

In a recent post I criticized the wave of parish closings and the overall mania for “downsizing” the Church in the United States. I argued, against the naysayers who cite “numbers” and “statistics,” that if bishops and priests acted like bishops and priests rather than statisticians and actuaries, they’d stop counting numbers and get out and do their jobs: evangelize, using the wonderful material infrastructure they inherited from an earlier generation of “brick-and-mortar” bishops. Against those bishops patting themselves on the back for their “responsible stewardship,” I argued that they should have been responsible stewards of priests trolling the highways and byways with the Gospel. And I insisted that Scripture gives us the Holy Spirit’s “pastoral planning” vision when He nurtured the growth of the Church “in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee” as it “grew in numbers.”

That essay got translated into Spanish and one of the commentators observed that I seemed to criticize this process without offering something more positive. Fair enough. Here are some positive suggestions.

One: The bishops hold two annual multiday meetings per year, in June and November. Instead of dumping several hundred thousand dollars on Baltimore hotels, how about doing the meeting in one of the larger buildings the Archdiocese of Baltimore now plans to sell off in its “Seek the City to Come Initiative” that would strip 61 parishes down to 21? How about converting a large convent into accommodations for Their Graces? Or are those haunts too pedestrian for them? It shouldn’t take that long for the amount of money outlaid to Baltimore hoteliers to be recouped, even if some of it is used to upgrade these facilities as episcopal lodgings. (And there’s a reason why conclaves were traditionally spartan: that tended to fix episcopal attention on the business at hand).

Two: A reason why cities (and their Catholic enclaves) emptied out after World War II was American “car culture.” Postwar prosperity resulted in people buying cars. Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway system. Gas was cheap. Those factors led to a “living culture” in America that separated places of work, education, residence, and shopping. And Americans have found it produced unlivable communities, which is one of the reasons for the “new urbanism” movement.

That said, while modern builders are looking to overcome the parcelization of American life, the bishops’ parish selloffs foster the worst of a 75-year-old policy. Take Baltimore: 21 Catholic parishes versus 61 means churches will be farther apart. Post-COVID, people want to commute less, not more. The bishops would make them commute more, not less.

So, why are we making it harder and more car-dependent to go to church? Should we not keep open churches in neighborhoods (which stabilize them), moving one priest rather than whole congregations, even if those congregations are attenuated?

Three: Most of these properties enjoy some degree of tax privilege. Even if we are not retaining them for exclusively liturgical purposes, how can we repurpose them to support the Church’s work of evangelization? Like:

A place like Baltimore (and many inner cities) needs schools. We are in the midst of a school revolution: charter schools, private schools, Catholic schools. Why not use some of those closed Catholic schools? How do we create partnerships with new models of delivering education, incorporating a Catholic dimension, e.g., Catholic charter schools?

If “new urbanism” wants to produce livable communities, what about finding ways (even with the Church as landlord) to redesign properties for families (say, of some of those school teachers) to live in affordable city housing?

Can some of those properties provide local clinic healthcare services under Catholic auspices? Or Catholic-sponsored daycare/afterschool care that provides a safe and religious venue, oftentimes in otherwise less-than-safe surroundings?

Granted, these are not “traditional” uses of parishes. But they are ways that the Good News of Christ and His Church is made present, especially in marginalized areas. (See this article for why that makes sense: here.) While they may be innovative ways of reconceiving the Church’s mission, our bishops might be challenged to rethink how we do evangelization today. And, for all those bishops who continue to babble about the need to “de-clericalize” the Church, well gentlemen, these new ways of evangelizing will be lay-centric. So, how about putting your mites in the form of property into that job?

Four: Dobbs made the necessity of practical pro-life witness to women in distress more immediate and pressing. If we are a “pro-life Church” (in more than annual episcopal rhetoric), there is a need for practical venues in every neighborhood where pregnant woman in distress can (a) get essential support; (b) go somewhere to meet others in similar straits; (c) maybe find childcare for children already born; and even (d) stay somewhere if they are abandoned, thrown out, or homeless. Is the Catholic “responsible steward” approach telling those women in need, “sorry, but we had a higher bidder”?

Material property is valuable. It is readily disposable but nowhere near as readily acquirable (especially at today’s rates). I thought of that as I walked across the “parish plant” of my boyhood church, St. John Paul II (a.k.a. St. Stephen’s) in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Between the parking lots, school, rectory, convent, church, and support building, it covers more than an average city block, street to street. Try buying that in New Jersey today: you can’t. We now have that property. We have a Pope with a “vision” (and numerous bishops who declare their fidelity to his “vision”) to enhance the role of the laity and a pretty broad set of needs that traditionally belong to the laity. How do we manage our purchased, paid-for, generally mortgage-free, tax-leveraged property for those laity to carry out the New Evangelization amidst the concrete conditions the Church faces today? That seems a reason not simply to divest ourselves of hard-earned property because our bishops and their sycophantic curia are disinclined to think harder outside the box.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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