Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Uncertain Church Awaits Pope in U.S.
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
Less than two weeks ago, as final preparations were being made for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States, the bishop of Camden, N.J., announced plans to close or merge nearly half the parishes in his diocese. Meanwhile, Catholics in New Orleans, Boston, New York, Toledo, Ohio, and nearly three dozen other dioceses are mourning the loss of parishes and parochial schools they grew up in.
So when the pope arrives in the United States on Tuesday, he will find an American church in which many Catholics are eager not only for his spiritual guidance, but also for his acknowledgment that their church is going through a time of pain and uncertainty.
Hundreds of parishes are being closed and consolidated, and the reasons are usually intertwined with the other big challenges facing the church: a shortage of priests, fallout from the sexual abuse scandal, insufficient funds to maintain aging churches, demographic changes and sometimes not enough people attending Mass to justify keeping parishes open.
And yet for most observant Catholics, their primary experience of the church is their local parish.
“It’s frustrating because you start to see the bishop as the enemy, and it puts you where you’re conflicted,” said Leah Vassallo, a lawyer whose parish in Malaga, N.J., is among those to be closed. “Obviously you don’t want to give up your faith or go to a different religion, or not go to church at all. But it does disenfranchise you. We’re going to be a lot more hesitant before we give money to the church.”
A resistance movement to church closings that began in Boston has spread to other dioceses. On Sunday, Catholics in six dioceses — New York, Boston, Buffalo, Camden, New Orleans and Toledo — announced that they were forming a national group, the Coalition for Parishes, to try to prevent the closing or merging of viable churches.
In addition to the issues the closings and consolidations present, this will be the first visit by any pope since the sexual abuse scandal erupted in 2002, taking a spiritual, emotional and financial toll on Catholics across the country. The scandal revealed more than 5,000 victims, and left behind five bankrupt dioceses. It has cost the church more than $2 billion, so far, and it is not over. Last week the family of two young boys filed a civil lawsuit against a Massachusetts priest accusing him of molesting the boys as recently as 2005.
One of the scandal’s repercussions is that lay Catholics across the country are demanding more financial accountability from their bishops and more control over decisions, especially when it comes to closing parishes.
Many dioceses are also closing parochial elementary, junior and high schools that have provided a rigorous education for generations of Catholics and non-Catholics.
The cost of legal fees and settlements to abuse victims has put financial pressure on many dioceses. But in many cases, the far larger reason for the closings is demographic.
Urban enclaves of Italian, Irish, Polish and Eastern European Catholics who had their own ethnic parishes are dispersing to the suburbs and seeing their previous parishes shuttered — or having to learn to share their churches with immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa. In some parishes the new mix has been joyous, in others uneasy.
The pope is expected to praise the American church’s vibrancy during his visit, and there is much for the church to celebrate. Catholics are the biggest religious group in the United States, about 23 percent of the population, a proportion that has held steady. Many parishes are healthy, and some are growing, with the influx of immigrants, especially Hispanics.
A poll released on Sunday by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University showed a mixed performance review for the American bishops: 22 percent of Catholics are “very satisfied” with the bishops, 50 percent are “somewhat satisfied,” 21 percent are “somewhat dissatisfied,” and 6 percent are “very dissatisfied.” It is an improvement from 2002, the outbreak of the scandal.
But most priests, and even many bishops, will acknowledge the woes.
Of 18,634 parishes in 2007, 3,238 were without resident pastors. More than 800 parishes have been closed since 1995, most since 2000. (Some bishops are preparing their parishioners for more closings ahead.) The number of priests ordained in 2007 fell to 456, less than half the number of new priests in 1965. Nearly 3 in 10 Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more said they had been personally affected by the priest shortage, according to the Georgetown poll.
“There’s a crisis,” said William V. D’Antonio, a fellow of the Life Cycle Institute at the Catholic University of America. “We’re running out of priests. The average age of priests currently active is over 60. We have recruitment of new priests way below replacement level.”
Groups that advocate opening the priesthood to women and to married men are using the pope’s visit to promote their causes. But there is nothing to suggest that the Vatican is close to reversing itself. The solutions promoted by American bishops are to work harder at recruiting candidates for the priesthood, and to ordain permanent deacons — laymen who can preach and perform many ministerial duties.
Peter Borre, a parishioner who helped form the Council of Parishes in Boston, said that if he could address Pope Benedict XVI, he would say: “The shortage of priests, Your Holiness, is both a symptom and a problem itself. The deeper problem is not a responsibility of the flock, it’s a failure of bishops to inspire and draw more people into the priesthood.”
Some bishops, like Joseph Galante in Camden, have tried to involve the laity in the painful restructuring process. But since the sexual abuse scandal, they are finding many of their parishioners have become more confrontational.
The restiveness is not only among laity. In Belleville, Ill., last month, 45 priests took the step of publicly releasing a letter to the Vatican’s representative in Washington calling for their bishop to step down. They accused the bishop, Edward K. Braxton, of poor communication with priests and of misappropriating more than $17,000 and using it to buy liturgical garments and furniture. (The bishop has apologized, but said he would not resign.)
In Boston, Catholics have spent the last four years taking turns camping inside five churches that the archdiocese wants to close. They figure that if the church is occupied, the archdiocese will not be able to padlock it.
In Boston and Toledo, some Catholics are suing the church to prevent the closings.
The quandary for the church is that the agitation is coming from some of the most religiously committed Catholics, said Mr. D’Antonio, co-author of a recent book that surveyed the members of “Voice of the Faithful,” another church reform group.
“These are really the loyal Catholics speaking out for change,” Mr. D’Antonio said. “They are the ones who have been the Eucharistic ministers, they went to Catholic parochial schools and colleges, got a terrific education, and now they want to change the church.”
Ms. Vassallo, the lawyer in Camden who objects to the closing of her parish (the diocese there is reducing the number to 66 from 124), spends every Thursday from 11 p.m. to midnight in her church praying before the Blessed Sacrament. She is one in a chain of parishioners who keep up this Eucharistic Adoration for 48 uninterrupted hours every week.
As Catholics they are devoted to their church, but don’t necessarily agree with all of its decisions. As Americans, accustomed to life in a democracy, they think they have a right to say so.
Dan Thiel, a contractor and excavator in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, was in a ministerial training program for five years in the Toledo diocese, which assigned him to help gather information from parishes on which ones could be closed or clustered. In the end, he said, he was appalled because some very alive parishes were cut. His own was reduced to a chapel, without a resident priest.
“They’ve totally abandoned our community,” said Mr. Thiel, who is now president of United Parishes, a group that is fighting parish closings in Toledo. “They took the buildings, they took the money, and said, ‘You guys can go somewhere else.’ ”
“There are so many people that want to be active in this church, that want to know more about their faith, and now they’re so offended,” Mr. Thiel said. “I tell people all the time, ‘Don’t leave your church. It’s not the pope. It’s not the bishop. It’s your community.’ ”