Church: Is it the Bishops? the People? or Buildings?

For many traditionalists the bishops (along with the pope) are the heart of the Church. For many liberals, its the people who are important. However, as recent church closing show, for many parish members the church building is the highly emotionally charged symbol at the center of being Church.

The Cleveland Diocese recently finished closing 50 churches. The Plain Dealer’s editorial covers the situation here in a manner sympathetic to the diocese. (It is not the New York Times or the Boston Globe!).

To get a real feel for the pain on the ground, check out this blog, especially some of the past posts.

The closing affected some parishes which are very liberal, in terms of  liturgical style and social programs. It affected some very traditional parishes. Most of all, the closings hit ethnic parishes. The people who are protesting the closings are a rich stew of Catholic diversity.  Very liberal and very traditional Catholics work very amicably with each other in their opposition to the closings.

The bishop had hoped to celebrate the closing Mass at all affected churches. In cases in which this was done, it occurred with a strong police presence. In some cases the only people who went to the final Mass were protesters and the curious. Some of the final Masses were simply cancelled, because the people and pastor had already held their own final Mass without the bishop. The closing Masses ended up becoming a strong symbol of the fracturing of the relationship between the bishop and the people, almost the exact opposite of their intent and the liturgical ideal.

Prayer vigils are the one positive item bringing protestors together. This has occurred in other dioceses. Some elsewhere have been going on for years. Why is prayer so important? And why do these prayer vigils seem to arise as things get really hopeless? And why do they continue for so long?

Church buildings are not just physical places like any other, but places of prayer. Perhaps that is what is so threatening about their closure. It is interesting that many of the ethnic parishes link these closings to the closings under Communist rule. Perhaps the prayer vigils are affirmations that no one can control their praying, not even by taking away their places of worship or their priests.

John Rakosky
Concord Township, Ohio

Jack Rakosky has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current main interest is voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.


  1. The parishes that were closed represented The Family of God in a particular place. For most of us who have suffered through a parish closing the rupture of extended family ties that were established over generations as we built (often literally) the churches and struggled to maintain that place that held us together, that connected us is the part the bishops don’t get. Bishops and priests are usually moved from place to place as they climb up and down the corporate ladder. They don’t get connected to the families who make up the parish family in the same was that those of us who spend our lives in these places connect. Celebrating the Eucharist occasionally with a traveling priest is a better option, for now, than tearing apart families and telling them to go someplace else. Especially if the bishop and the presbyterate is willing to train some laypersons to hold the family together.

    1. Good points, Jack and Mr. O’Bryan. The church I now worship in is “redundant”. It’s a beautiful 19th neo-Romanesque with marvelous frescoes and dirty carpets. The Extraordinary Form congregation has long sought to expel the Ordinary Form congregation. “All the other churches in the archdiocese have the Ordinary Form — can’t they go somewhere else?” (I remind myself that everyone’s a they to someone else.) Along the way we trads have forgotten that there’s a housing development across the street that’s a kilometer from the next church. The church’s neighbors have the prerogative to worship in the ordinary form (regardless of the famous ‘extraordinary form superiority complex’ of which I am quite guilty).

      Whenever I see photos of church protests I remind myself that some of the people in the photos are the descendants of the parish founders. There are no founders’ sons and daughters in our parish. Regardless, churches are still in the service of communities by virtue of their location. The sale, reassignment, or destruction of a church without regard to the congregants’ wishes also ignores the memory of the benefactors etched on the stained glass. We may not know the founders’ intent. We do know that what they have created has placed an indelible mark on that community even after the wrecking ball.

    2. The ND Parish Life Study in the 1980s found the voluntary leaders had their closest relationships in the parish, the paid people outside the parish.

      The big fault line today may between paid and voluntary leaders who are tuned into diocesan structures and even national ones (like LitPress) and the average person who relates to their family, friends, neighbors, and the people in a ministry like the choir.

      The parish leadership may have a good overview of the parish and its environments but the people’s experience of parish includes past pastors, past choirs, past parish events often little know to the present administration.

      The gap between the parish corporate leadership that works with the diocesan bureaucracy and the many both separate and partially overlapping family networks is bigger than most parish leaders are willing to admit.

      But the post is about more that social organization.

      It has to do with the building as temple, a place of prayer. We are also individually temples, and we are corporately temples. Changing a place of prayer is more disturbing than changing a classroom. Changing a text of prayer is disturbing. Changing a sung text is disturbing.

      It is not as simple as how does the corporation reorganize itself or who calls the shots in the corporation. A shared prayer life is at risk.

  2. A true challenge. Some observations based on my own expereinces over the years.

    I have seen regular parishes close, only to reopen as a ethnic parish a year later, much to the consternation of the former parishioners.

    Ethnic parishes present their own challenges, especially after about 3 generations, where the descendants of the original immigrants have completely embraced the culture and language of the new country. The parishes slowly fade. Also, often ethnic parishes are responsible for finding their own priest, which can truly be a challenge. I am reminded of the local ethnic Hungarian parish. There aren’t too many Hungarian speaking priests around, then have been without a pastor for years.

    I know some have questioned the wisdom of ethnic parishes, especially in the era of clergy shortages, and the isolation on the basis of language, within the same Rite, not different Rites.

  3. My experience in the Wichita diocese is that the closed parishes did not have the luxury of picking a progressive or conservative pastor. They got what they got. As a family they either tolerated or whole heartedly welcomed the new pastor. Some liked him, some didn’t but he’s usually been an “outsider” and for the most part he wanted it that way. In spite of whoever the bishop sent to cut the turkey, the family worked, played, fought, and prayed together as a family and the bishop said that didn’t count for anything.
    Within a few miles of our border there is a congregation that includes almost 100 vietnamese priests. This diocese has imported priests from Burma but will not use the priests who are nearby. This makes sense to the bureaucrats.

  4. My response to the question at the beginning of this discussion is: The Church isn’t the institutional bureaucracy, it isn’t the monuments that have been constructed to the memory of rich parishoners or built as monuments to themselves by ladder climbing pastors. The Church is us, with or without buildings, with or without a priest-pastor, us gathered as The Family of God to do what families do, together.

    1. Do you mean a parish can be a parish without a priest pastor, or the Church can be the Church without a priest-pastor (i.e. bishop)?

      1. Yes Fr. Christopher – we’re all conspiring to eliminate any role in the Church for ordained people like you. We have planted seeds of insurrection in your parish – be on the lookout. Priests are so yesterday.

  5. A good working definition for the image of the Church:

    The bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent.

    Therefore all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church; they must be convinced that the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations, especially in the same eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar, at which there presides the bishop surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers.

    1. I think when people are hurting, grieving, or angry, probably the very best pastoral response is to cite Church documents at them and tell them to get over it. 🙂

    2. I do so appreciate the immediate and personal attention I get on this website. I was tempted to post something about giant puppets and liturgical dance on the cappa magna thread and sit by with my stop-watch to time it’s deletion…:)

    3. Yes, I value the image of the Bishop as Church, especially as surrounded by the local Church. It was for that very reason that the description and access to all the images that are contrary to that are included.

      However, it is the responsibility of the Bishop to be the Church WITH his people, not AGAINST them. That is the image. If he cannot succeed in doing that, then he has to consider resigning.

      The Plain Dealer editorial is considered by many people to have been entirely too soft on the Bishop, far softer than its reporters had been. But it landed across my e-mail about the same time as blog update about prayer vigils. It did summarize the history briefly and gave the diocese every benefit of the doubt while still pointing out the very difficult road ahead.

      By the way, at the end of editorial is reference to the long rumored, and long delayed, financial campaign which many priests have counseled the bishop against for a long list of reasons. Remember the image of the bishop WITH his priests!

  6. In my own diocese, recently reconfigured from 95 parishes to 24 pastoral areas, the underlying question has always been “How can we keep the flame of faith alive in these places?” The result has been that no churches have been closed, but the reconfiguration into areas with teams of clergy staffing each area has actually resulted in improved availability of Eucharist and pastoral care.

    We did not undertake this without a huge diocesan-wide consultative process, culminating in a diocesan assembly to launch the diocesan pastoral plan, which was the fruit of the consultation. Several years on, a number of the pastoral areas have now been transformed to become canonical parishes, and the eventual aim is that all will do this. However, all existing church buildings within each parish or pastoral area are still open, and there is no plan to change this.

  7. What’s so sad is that everyone’s in an impossible situation – bishops because they have to shell out a fortune on settlement of abuse cases largely commited by priests and (possibly) mismanaged by bishops long before them, laity because their parishes get closed as a result. There are so many things parishes and diocese could do otherwise but we can only continue from where we are not from where we might wish to be.

  8. Too bad every priest-pastor and bishop is not required to read St. Benedict’s Rule, particularly those parts that speak to the abbot, not as the dictator, the boss, the ruler but the father, the guide, the enabler. The “little princes” being churned out by seminaries will probably never learn how to be a father, a guide, an enabler. They’re always going to be outsiders, more like puppies going around marking the territory of “their” new parish.
    While the folks endure being flipped and flopped as each new prince comes in to “straighten things out.”
    Is it any wonder the young folks are leaving and the seniors (like me) are inclined to throw up . . . . their hands in disgust.

  9. Mr. O’Bryan,

    I admire [I first said envy, but that’s not a good thing] your charity – too often when I think on some of these topics I’m inclined to throw up. . .my dinner. Gotta work on that, but it’s difficult.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you about the Rule. We had one of those puppy priests for a while. Blessedly, it was a pretty short while.

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