It is in the news already. Pastors throughout the Diocese of Cleveland have received a letter today (Wednesday) from the bishop concerning what needs to be done through the Vibrant Parish Life initiative to keep the diocese running smoothly and make the sacraments available to the Catholics of the eight county region. Rumors are already flying. Who or what will close? What will any particular parish have to do? Who will have less and who will have more priests? Will we be affected at all? On the short term, not everyone will be happy. People may not like what is asked of them to do. Pastors will not like having to face his people and say, “Here is what we need to do.” I’m sure the bishop, though a strong man, will have to bear the brunt of many complaints and it will not be pleasant for him. Probably the least effected will be parochial vicars as we are only assigned to a particular parish for four years and then we move on. We will not have to deal with the long-term anguish.
It would be surprising if you could find a pastor in the diocese who does not know that drastic steps need to be taken. Northeast Ohio has lost many residents. Included in that drop of persons is the Catholic community. We are roughly 100,000 persons smaller than we were at our peak yet we run the diocese with parishes and services as if we were still considerably larger than we are and we are straining. It is also known that the Catholics who remain do not live where they used to. Not immune to suburban sprawl they headed out to what was a couple of decades (or months) ago farmland now overlaid with cement streets, tiny trees, matching mailboxes, and houses that have fancy facades and three sides wrapped in aluminum siding.
Another approaching tragedy will be the closing of the Ford plants in the area. Charities and arts will become more cut throat as the well of funds continues to dry up. It will undoubtedly mean the out migration of more people from the Cleveland area, which means less people in the pew and certainly less money in the collection basket for all religious organizations.
Of course then there is the priest shortage. And in theory we can sit around and say, “Yes! Something needs to be done. Let’s do it!” But deep down we mean, “But we are fine. Leave us alone. Fix them”
Intellectually we are all great churchmen, but when floodwaters of change hit our doorsteps, we can lose courage. We all know the teaching that Church doesn't mean a building, but people. The faith is not contained in bricks and mortar; it is housed in flesh and blood. But for good or evil, our buildings have become powerful symbols. Anyone who has tried to move a statue or change the configuration of the sanctuary furniture knows that the very wrath of God can be visited upon your head. We become very attached. I know.
My home parish was suppressed along with another ethnic parish and a new community arose. A loyal churchman I took it in stride. Then Saturday I happened across some pictures on the Internet of the old building now a “Salt and Light” ministry. It took my breath away. All kinds of emotions and memories came rushing back. There is the choir loft in which I spent most of my time as a youngster as almost everyone I was related too sang in the choir. I would lean over the wooden railing and watch the people below.
When I wasn’t looking out from the loft I sat on the end of the organ bench next to Mrs. Bailey. Mom and Dad were married here. I made my First Holy Communion and had just started serving before we moved to the new modern building down the road. I still dream at night about that old church rather regularly.
My sister and I went for a walk on Memorial Day that took us around the old church. It still pulls at my heartstrings. I think of all the people, all the things we did there, the traditions, the music, the sacraments, the awesome respect in which we held the building that housed the Blessed Sacrament, how it was kept immaculately clean by volunteers at the parish. The stories that were handed on about past generations largely lost now because we are no longer in the places that happen to remind us, “Hey, do remember when . . .”
Now, nobody is going to wake tomorrow with news that they need to start looking for a new parish (at least think,) but things are going to start happening. There will be closings. Perhpas as many as 23. Some people will be offering thanksgiving and others will start mourning. And we are all in this boat together from the babe in arms to the bishop himself. I assure you he would much rather keep every parish open, subsidize them, and give them more priest and nuns to staff the place than they need. But he can’t. This is a solution. At some point we have to stop debating and do something. Our bishop is calling us to this.
Everyone knows that it is going to hard for some. Our symbols are both mightily powerful and important. Any reader of this blog knows they would be preaching to the choir here about the beauty of symbols and the influence that they have to us tactile beings. But in the end, they are just symbols. Not so the Blessed Sacrament, not so our faith, not so even the Church. It is a heart-wrenching lesson. But we must keep our hearts and minds on truth, what is real, what is of most supreme value. Keep your eyes fixed on that, nothing else, even if you are one of those chosen to mourn.