Presently I live in a development that contains a 27-hole golf course. We as homeowners do not own the course, which has been under outside ownership and management since its construction. Last year the owner announced that due to economic difficulties he was closing the course. This is not surprising; if you read financial publications you already know that golf is bad business; here in Central Florida alone a number of courses have gone belly-up, due to excessive building and the changing recreational habits of millennials. Ours now sits vacant, and Mother Nature is taking ownership, creating a landscape apropos of a low budget Western cowboy film.
We have a neighborhood blog which has the virtues of many blogs: individuals writing in the heat of passion, sometimes after a few Manhattans, making accusations and preposterous proposals. A few weeks ago our HOA scheduled a meeting for the homeowners and the mayor. About two hours in I was thinking of a scene from a truly funny movie, “Zorro the Gay Blade,” where a solemn Spanish official steps into the village square and declares: “Return to your homes; we’ve heard enough idiots for one day.”
There is a certain inevitability to how this will play out. The course owner will work something out with city officials to rezone the course and then sell to new developers, and we will get townhouses where sand traps once ruined a peaceful walk. But the process of getting there is sloppy, and for our purposes today probably a good lesson in how not to conduct parish business.
There are some things in church life over which we have no control. We do not elect our bishops and pastors (though there is nothing expressly forbidding this in Canon Law; many a bishop and pope took their offices by popular acclaim.) We do not have control of demographics, which is why many dioceses must maintain inner city churches after their members have moved to the suburbs. We do not control the economy. As much as we work to reform our culture, we do not control it (and in fact have a rather poor historical track record when we do control the secular world.)
Those in ministry and/or advisory boards such as parish finance boards (mandated by Canon Law) and parish councils (permitted by Canon Law) must have a healthy sense of realism and balance in advising policies and practices. I believe that one qualification for board service is something akin to or the same as catechetical training, to grasp some measure of the mission of the Church. I also believe that appointments to such boards are too critical for “popular elections” as I will explain below. As a pastor, particularly in later years, I factored stewardship into my considerations: a generous supporter was often a faithful adherent who had achieved success in other areas and was able to give me highly competent advice. In addition, they had remained faithful through periods of incredible parish stress.
But I also feel that it is important to get a pulse of the whole parish to the degree possible. Pollsters say that doing credible statistics in Catholic populations is extremely difficult because researchers do not know how to correctly classify membership—only 24% of Catholics attend weekly Mass, according to CARA. How far down the spectrum do you go, as a researcher, until you say that the input of a particular person is not statistically credible? Believe it or not, the reverse is also true: the input of someone who is too closely connected to the parish—in an almost neurotic sense—is also skewed through a loss of objectivity.
I must tip my hat to one diocese in the northern reaches of New York State, Ogdensburg, which adopted a program this year of visiting every household regardless of religious affiliation. Actually Canon Law does state that a Catholic pastor has a responsibility for the spiritual welfare of all persons in the community, not just professed Roman Catholics. As described in this article from National Catholic Register, the purpose of this visitation is spiritual in nature, a major step in the diocese’s evangelization program. However, I strongly believe this program will provide the diocese and its parishes with valuable information about the churches’ effectiveness in that great expanse that includes the Adirondack Park and the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
There are some forms of parish dialogue that quite frankly are a waste of time. Town meetings generally attract those with specific issues or axes to grind. A similar case can be made for mailed surveys, which sometimes come back in the form of poison pen letters. But what are some helpful ways to receive good feedback? When my wife was principal of a Catholic school, she sponsored numerous “coffee with the principal” socials which allowed for low keyed but significant discussion; in addition, these would give my wife the opportunity to explain policies and procedures that might not be fully understood. This model would work well, it seems to me, for DRE’s or faith formation directors in collaboration with parents and guardians.
Parish (and diocesan) finances are always a source of interest. But it is staggering to me how little is known about the cost of running a parish. In my beloved Buffalo hometown a large number of old Catholic parishes were closed or were announced to close. There was great hue and cry from former members now living in the suburbs (and the bishop at the time got punched in the nose, as I understand it.) But an enterprising reporter for one of Buffalo’s media outlets attended the prime Sunday Mass in several of these parishes, and found that attendance ranged from 60 to 16. (16?!) The next time you see a weekly “Sunday offering” figure in a Church bulletin, multiply it X52 and draw your own conclusions.
I know that diocesan procedures differ around the country, but in general I believe a full parish audit should be done minimally every three years by an independent firm and made available to parishioners for inspection on property. The report should also offer a general estimate of future trends, liabilities and the like, so that closures and consolidations that will continue will not fall like a ton of bricks. I think that were I invested in a parish in any way—and particularly as a professional with a family—this is information I would like to have for my own ministerial planning.
Whatever your ministerial plans are for today, may I make the suggestion that you drop what you are doing to take a look at the results of the most recent PEW Research Center’s study, released yesterday and reported on national news. I happened to see it last night on NBC, where anchor Lester Holt simply announced that the United States is a less Christian nation than it was seven years ago. Everyone has impressions and opinions on the state of religion, of course. The declining Mass attendance and church/school closings around the country over the years have certainly given indication that something is seriously wrong in the Catholic family. But I believe in empirical evidence: I turn to professions like PEW for general U.S. trends and CARA for in-house Catholic research.
In a study titled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” PEW found that the number of Americans who identified themselves as Christian has dropped from 78% to 70%. The biggest statistical factor is a decline in Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant Churches, but even the Evangelical Churches have dropped in membership statistically. The unaffiliated population rose from 16% to 22%. Two factors give me considerable concern: (1) this study is a follow-up to a similar one undertaken in 2007; thus, we are looking at an eight-year trend, not a quick snapshot. Trends over considerable time lines do not stop on a dime. (2) PEW notes that the drop in Christian affiliation is more statistically pronounced among young adults, but it “is occurring among Americans of all ages.” I have linked the details of the study above
(I should note here that CARA disputes these findings on methodological grounds. But its own internal numbers are hardly comforting: less than a quarter or 24% of self-identified Catholics attend weekly Mass: this translates to three families in every class of twelve students in your religious education programs. Your impressions were indeed correct.)
What are some possible causes/reactions/conceptualizations/pastoral considerations we might bring to reception of a report such as this? (Please add your own.)
1. Polling and research don't matter. Poor research makes things worse. Ask Thomas E. Dewey. Good research produces things like the polio vaccine and air bags. PEW is among the best. And this study is more confirmation than revelation.
2. Contemporary culture is destroying basic values like prayer and fidelity. Yes, there is merit to this argument, but in what period of history was there no struggle between value and popular culture? Socrates, Jesus, Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther King all discovered this to be true.
3. Everyone who leaves the Church is abandoning the Faith and we are better off without them. We don’t know exactly why people leave. Maybe the Church should spend a little money with the PEW people and ask those former Catholics why they left. Such a population is not hard to find; “former Catholics” is the second largest identifiable religious group in the United States.
4. If we changed our rules and made things easier, people wouldn’t leave. According to PEW, mainstream Protestantism is losing members at nearly the same rate as Roman Catholicism. No insult intended; some of my best friends are Methodists.
5. We need a fundamental return to simple piety and the Bible. PEW notes that Evangelicals are decreasing as well. (That surprised me, too.)
6. Christianity doesn’t work anyway; look at all the scandals. "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." I knew one of these days I could drop this G.K. Chesterton quote. If you are a regular reader or attend Mass on Sundays, you might pick up a whiff of the Evangelist Mark in Chesterton’s thought.
I have two initial reactions to the study, whose results frankly did not surprise me. Late last night, like many of you, I stayed up to watch the coverage of the tragic train derailment in Philadelphia. I got to thinking that the railroad bed of this train is probably the same one in use when Union troops left New York to fight the Confederacy in 1861. It is hardly news that the infrastructure of the United States is old, rotting, ineffective, and from time to time kills people. I am of a mind that the infrastructure of the Catholic Church is old, rotting, ineffective, and from time to time kills or alienates the good will, productivity, and patience of its fellow travelers. What is very sobering is PEW’s finding that departures from the Church cover the entire gamut of ages, including my own +65 cohort.
I hasten to add that I am not speaking of the body of Catholic belief that we share, but rather the attempt to preach and teach our Tradition without its most important reality, a profound personal sense of the wonder of God. The early twentieth century philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto, spoke of the holy with three Latin terms: mysterium, the hidden nature of the holy beyond all imagination; tremendum, the awesome character of this mystery as beyond our control, and fascinans, the attractive character of this mystery insofar as it is overwhelmingly gracious. St. Augustine describes this foundational experience of God like this: “God is sought in order to be found more sweetly, and found in order to be sought more eagerly.”
Any religion, including our own Catholic heritage, that attempts to do business without the mysterium, tremendum, and fascinans is, at the end of the day, just another store in the strip mall of inadequate meanings and dead end trails on the cultural horizon. A Church that conveys mystery, awe and an intangible attraction to the holy will never have empty parking places.
In a good many parishes there are summer activities that demand attention, like the vacation bible school or the summer church fundraising festival (at least in the temperate parts of the U.S.) Hopefully these activities are staffed by “summer crews” so that the year round catechists, ministers and school teachers can get some personal rest and enjoy the leisure to reflect upon their work from a safe distance. Summer is also rich with opportunities for continuing education.
Summer is a fine time for a personal retreat. There are many religious orders and communities around the country that make them available. I learned today that the annual posting of summer retreats, institutes, and academic seminars will be posted on May 8 by National Catholic Reporter. This annual project of NCR was once a much-awaited event and its listings from around the country numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands. Today, perhaps due to increasing advertising costs, today’s summer issue is a shadow of its old self, but it still remains a very interesting site to peruse.
Retreat houses with long traditions continue to thrive, however. My personal favorite is Mepkin Abbey, about 50 miles from Charleston, South Carolina. Mepkin is an active Trappist working community which offers accommodations to those wishing to get away from the world. Retreatants can join the monks for prayer and Mass as their needs dictate. My then-fiancé and I were directed to Mepkin by our pastor as a substitute for the pre-Cana program of our diocese. Given that we were both 50 at the time, he wisely adduced that the intensity of this Trappist environment for several days might best prepare us for marriage instead of “classes.” If you visit the website, Mepkin has a suggested offering for your stay, but no one is ever declined due to lack of funds. Oh yes, be prepared for a vegetarian diet and lots of silence…and liturgies with majestic simplicity that you’ll want to take home.
Not all retreats are offered in this fashion. In fact, monastic settings are something of the exception. Many dioceses and religious communities have gotten into the “retreat business,” to best utilize existing properties such as seminaries and houses of formation. Your own diocese may sponsor a retreat center. Aside from NCR, there are some retreat clearing house websites, such as here and here. These retreat centers offer “directed retreats,” where you would attend a program of talks and liturgies around a particular theme; a “private directed retreat” in which you establish a relationship with a spiritual director who guides your prayers and meditations according to your needs; and a “private retreat” in which you follow your own lights, joining the larger group for Mass and meals as you see fit.
Another summer experience might be summer school. I pulled up just one, from Catholic University, to show you what a beehive of activity our Catholic colleges are during the summer. My happiest summers were the early 1970’s when I worked here, in the days when hundreds of sisters came down from Buffalo to earn 5-summer M.A. degrees in theology. (I was the music director for the daily 5 P.M. campus Mass and worked with eight of the best Franciscan scholars in the world—an eccentric group, to be sure.) You have many options—you can take courses you need for your basic skill set, or you can indulge yourself in a theological field of interest. Remember my rule: always take your courses for credit, not audit, if you possibly can. This will add to the power of your resume and increase your earning potential. Get your parish cover your costs: ethically I think you are owed that.
We have talked about on-line courses before, but summer schedules may allow you more time to do the readings reflectively. Again, check with your diocesan web page to see if there is a recommendation from the faith formation office. In my home diocese or Orlando, our catechists are referred to the University of Dayton’s on-line certification program, which I see has five-week courses starting on May 31 and July 19. Again, don’t be afraid to ask your parish to pay the freight. If you have questions about a particular program, let me know.
And then, of course, we come to the wonderful world of books. It is encouraging to see that more of better mainstream theology books are now available on tablets. However, you might want to go the extra mile with a hard copy if you are going to use a book over and over as a source, which is certainly true with Scripture commentaries. At a minimum, this is the time to read a commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, who will take us through the C Cycle starting late this November. For those of you who have asked me about St. Luke, I am still tracking the best new commentaries.
I will be posting book recommendations on the welcome page as well as discussing texts on the Saturday “Books and Apps” posts for the foreseeable future.
Be careful not to get sunscreen cream on your new acquisitions.