On Ecclesiastical Growth

I do not believe the “Holy Spirit” is leading us into ecclesiastical shrinkage and retreat

A subtle aspect of last Sunday’s First Reading has to do with ecclesiastical growth. The main thrust of the reading was the suspicion with which the Church in Jerusalem (i.e., Peter and the other Apostles) initially received Paul, former persecutor and now evangelist, who “spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord.” So boldly, in fact, that the erstwhile killer of Christians was now the object of a murderous conspiracy, needing to be shipped back to his native Tarsus for his own protection. My interest is in the concluding passage of the reading, Acts 9:31:

The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.

Rarely in her history has the Church been “at peace.” Much more frequently she is persecuted. The initial security the Church enjoyed is — as the Scripture itself testifies — the “consolation of the Holy Spirit.”

But Christ promised His Spirit until the end of time, so we should not despair of the Spirit’s assistance in our time as in the Apostles’. Since God is always faithful to His Promises, perhaps then the assessment needs to be focused on us.

I am frankly not just tired of but disgusted with those who acquiesce in the Church’s decline (at least in the West, because there are places in the world the Church is growing dynamically). Those naysayers can be split between a passive and an active crowd. The former simply look at the numbers, wring their hands, and wait. The latter take a more active role in organizing the expected funeral procession.

Now, the latter generally are not so bold as to come out and say those things. They instead prefer to style themselves as “prudent” or “pragmatic.” “Can’t you see the numbers on the wall?” “Isn’t it apparent what’s happening?” “We are losing people!” “We have too few priests, and those we have are old!” The “pragmatic” and “prudent” crowd never chooses to ask how we got where we’re at or whether the path that got us here should be abandoned.

Yes, I can see the numbers on the wall. I can also see and hear — or rather, not see and not hear — the Mafia-esque vow of omertà that has surrounded clear teaching about things, especially sexual things, for the past 50 years. But when one considers the sexual abuse scandal still roiling the Church, one must ask whether the contemporary insolvency of local churches is more a function of the bankruptcy of diocesan bishops rather than diocesan books.

I see Peter speaking clearly to the face of the Sanhedrin about denying Christ — denial from which he did not excuse himself — rather than pussyfooting about “accompanying” people with all the right “feelings” and “tone.” I can see the failure of bishops to address the encroachment of the culture of death in the United States — often advanced by people who wave their “Catholicity” beside their rosaries and “learned” lectures at Notre Dame — who paid no ecclesiastical price for putting Caesar ahead of God. I can see the decline in the pews, and bishops who, to this day, refuse to conduct an honest post-mortem of whether the one-year-long shutdown of churches made sense. I can see the reduced numbers of priests, and still hear some dioceses and ecclesiastical leaders babbling about “rigidity,” knowing full well that we lost lots of vocations in the West to that bugaboo.

Of course, there was religious “renewal” and “reform,” adaptation and “new ministries.” Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remember reading when I entered Fordham in 1981 that the Society of Jesus, as the largest male religious order in the Church, had over 50,000 members worldwide. Today, it has about 16,000, many of them in retirement homes. What used to be the New York Province has been amalgamated with New England and Baltimore to form the Jesuit “USA East” Province, whose territory more or less mirrors most of the original 13 colonies. The Felician Sisters, whom Fr. Jozef Dąbrowski brought from Poland to serve the burgeoning Polish population in the United States, had at their height eight American provinces. Today they have a very shrunken one, largely waiting for the last elderly nun to turn off the lights.

In the real world, when your organization shrinks 68% from 1981 to 2024, you fire the management team responsible for that “achievement,” scrap their vision, and start anew. But, in best ecclesiastical denial mode, we’ll certainly be told the “Spirit” is “speaking” to a “new tomorrow” for the Church.

Balderdash. Acts tells us how the Spirit spoke: to foster the Church’s growth, to “build up” the Church, and not on the back of retired nonagenarians still convinced their “renewal” was right.

The “pragmatic” and “prudent” often also like to arrogate the title of “responsible stewards.” That’s especially a preferred episcopal moniker; today’s lock-and-leave generation of bishops busily closing the churches and other institutions they inherited from a previous generation of “brick-and-mortar” bishops won’t admit their failures. They won’t admit that, having been driven by John Ireland’s “integration” vision and the “necessity” of “making it” in America by any means possible (even as religious cohesion was weakening), they cannot manage to get “made it” affluent Catholics to sustain what their immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents built on nickels and dimes from sweatshop and factory labor. No, the “responsible stewards” gang is busy patting itself on the back about their “responsible” efforts to “manage resources” by “downsizing” the Church. They even hire “pastoral planning” and PR firms to christen their failures as “renewal of the local church.” If these guys really put a little more work into it, they could beat George Orwell at doublespeak.

Then there’s the wash-your-hands-of-the-modern-world/a-pox-on-all-your-houses crowd. That term, of course, is unappealing, so they put a smiley face on the situation by calling it a “Benedict Option.” Maybe the Church is smaller, but it’s “purer,” more “committed” to its faith and identity. Maybe we can all move into “intentional communities” (sounds much better than the “ghettoes” the modernizers were accusing ethnic Catholics of clinging to). We can even hold conferences among intentional communities!

Was there perhaps a need for pruning? Yes; two parishes within a block of each other might merit change. But when some  dioceses lose 50% or more of their parishes, I will not call that “renewal” or even “success.”

Sorry, but I’m a full-throated, unapologetic John Paul II “sail out into the deep” Catholic. I do not believe the “Holy Spirit” is leading us into ecclesiastical shrinkage and retreat. I do not believe America today needs fewer churches rather than more. I do not believe all our “pastoral planners” and “responsible stewards” are helping the Church. I would maintain they are injuring her while trying to put lipstick on the pig of their policies.

Fr. Robert McTeigue, S.J., an author whom I respect, does pose a legitimate question in his Christendom Lost and Found to us proponents of the John Paul vision: Do you have the people to pull off what you want to do? Maybe the pragmatically calculating would say, “no.” But consider Peter, James, and John. They started with 11 men and a few women. I don’t think Peter, James, and John were hiring “pastoral planning” consultants to chart “families of missions” plans for Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. They did what they — as priests and bishops — had to do, with zeal, gusto, and not equivocation. They left the “pastoral planning” to Another whose “consolation” made sure the Church “grew in numbers.”

If you start with that act of faith, you might not be so worried whether your contractor planner can cook up the numbers. After all, mustard seeds are tiny and hard to count.


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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