by Bill Droel
The late 1800s and early 1900s were boom years for U.S. Catholicism. Immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Eastern Europe and elsewhere populated urban neighborhoods, building churches and schools. Using Chicago as an example, its Archbishop James Quigley (1854-1915) issued a 1910 decree for the construction of more churches so that no one would need to go more than one mile to worship. “A parish,” he wrote, “should be such a size that the pastor can personally know every man, woman, and child in it.”
In that very year, there was already a square-mile neighborhood in Quigley’s diocese with 11 parishes: four for Irish-Americans, two for German, two for Polish and three for other Eastern Europeans. Over 70% of this Bridgeport neighborhood was Roman Catholic in 1910. Several other Chicago neighborhoods easily surpassed Quigley’s goal of one per square mile. With some changes in the lineup, Bridgeport maintained 11 parishes into the 1980s. In the 1990s the number was reduced to seven. Today, using the same boundaries, Bridgeport has six Catholic churches. The same downsizing happened in most East Coast and Great Lakes areas. Detroit, for example, lost 30 parishes in 1989.
Chicago’s wave of closings in the 1990s, eventually totaling 43 churches and schools, occurred during the administration of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996). Noting changes in demographics, economic realities and a relative shortage of ordained priests, Bernardin based his planning process on the need to “ensure greater financial stability of our local church.” In the 1980s about 80% of Chicago Catholic parishes broke even financially. During the Bernardin era those that were self-supporting fell to about 35%.
Now comes 2016 and Chicago Archbishop Blasé Cupich announces “a multi-year planning process,” that he calls Renew My Church. Cupich calls upon the imagination and strength of Chicago Catholics to make “the bold decisions that will shape the church for generations to come.”
Cupich is correct to shift focus away from exclusively bad news to future possibilities. Nostalgia does not bring back a 1910 or even a 1960-style parish. Those church leaders who are only good at planning wakes—in this case wakes for buildings and hardware–should be ignored.
Catholic leaders looking to make “bold decisions” in Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Buffalo, St. Paul and elsewhere might benefit from seven general approaches. (Two now, five in a subsequent column.) These approaches appreciate that many U.S. cities are rebuilding from the center outward; that residential urban flight has abated; and that promising neighborhoods are mixed use, mixed income and diverse. (A third column in this series will discuss the new suburbia.)
There’s a lot of talk in church circles about collaboration. The attitude of “Father knows best” is thankfully giving way to teamwork. Too much collaboration talk, however, can become an excuse for passing the buck. The days ahead require something of a communitarian entrepreneurial style—minus all clericalism and authoritarianism. That is, the pastor/administrator of a parish and his or her leadership team must experiment without fear, not waiting for cues from the Chancery that will never arrive. Don’t assign seminary graduates or available clergy to a parish, no matter how pious, unless they are risk-takers and self-starters. If visionary priests are in short supply, perhaps “the bold decisions” Cupich seeks include preparation and retention of steady, talented and creative lay leaders for pastoring positions.
How about ordaining more married men or even women? It is worth discussing. But, be quite clear: In the same way that assigning just any available celibate priest is no longer adequate, neither simply ordaining more married men or even ordaining women fits the need. An urban parish must have an entrepreneurial pastor, an enterprising business manager and other visionary leaders—men and women, maybe celibate or maybe married.
Here’s a possible test to determine if this or that person should be assigned as pastor. Is she or he willing and able to mount a sign on the parish lawn: “Financial Independence; No Chancery Grants Next Year.”
Borrowing Protestant Ideas
A wholesale imitation of the Protestant experience is not a viable future for U.S. Catholicism. But some borrowing is wise.
The connection between an urban neighborhood and a parish is a persistent and valuable feature of Catholic life. But strict enforcement of parish boundaries is a thing of the past. Pastors can’t waste energy worrying that another Catholic parish is poaching. A Catholic church can, like its Protestant counterpart, see itself as a set of concentric circles. Some members live close by, others commute. Some suburban people work in an urban parish neighborhood. The parish can with creativity relate to some of these workers. Some people want an ongoing relationship with a parish; others might usually worship elsewhere but still want some special relationship with the parish.
This is not to say that the traditional invitation to register in a parish should be abandoned or that shopping for a church should occur every weekend. Simply that an urban parish needs all kinds of people at various levels of involvement. Or, from the vantage of the individual Christian: A primary parish registration does not preclude other avenues to God’s mercy.
To be continued…