It was Christmas eve. Because I had been away for a month, I wanted to check the Mass schedule at my parish, just to be sure that midnight Mass would actually be held at 12 midnight and was not rescheduled to some earlier hour. I knew I would hear a taped message. No matter. All I wanted was the Mass schedule for Christmas.
Much to my surprise, the voice I heard on the tape was that of our beloved, now-retired-for- health-reasons, former pastor. He has been gone for more than a year, but there was his voice, regretting that no one was there to take my call. And the extensions he announced were those of people who are no longer there either. It was like a ghost rectory!
The new administrator celebrated midnight Mass. He gave a self-righteous scolding to the occasional attenders, rehearsed the rules for communion, and never broke a smile. This was so completely opposite to the parish’s warm character and charitable spirit that one felt as though the place had been taken over by aliens. In fact, the whole thing had a dream-quality about it. Could this really be happening? Was this the prelude to closing the parish? (My diocese is going through a process called “Making All Things New,” which is Newspeak for parish closures.)
Then, on Holy Family Sunday, I was at my father-in-law’s house, in another diocese, and looking for a church for Sunday Mass. My husband said he has driven past a lovely Catholic church in the town, and told me where it was. We looked it up in the phone book, found the name (there is only one Catholic Church in this small town) and phoned to find out the Mass schedule. The tape said Mass is at 8, 10, and 12. No problem. I drove out on Sunday morning.
It was a beautiful old stone church, well decorated with Christmas greens. I was a little puzzled however, because there seemed to be no parking lot. And even though it was close to Mass time, nobody was going in through the front door. OK, I said to myself, there must be a parking lot in the rear and the people go in through a side door; I hope the front door is not locked! I went up to the front door, and was pleased to find it was indeed open.
But, lo and behold, the beautiful church was empty. Mary of the Immaculate Conception gazed over a sea of empty pews. There was only one man standing at the back, at the very last pew, an older man in a reverie of prayer, a rosary in one hand and a panettone in the other. I approached him. “Excuse me, sir, is there no Mass today?” “Oh!” he said to me, startled, “There hasn’t been Mass here in three years!”
It was like a dream-sequence. “But I called,” I protested, “and the tape said Mass at 8, 10, and 12!” “No, there are no Masses here. The Hispanics use this as a chapel,” he explained, “The Anglos moved out.” He gave me some directions to the place where the Anglos now worship, but I couldn’t find it.
Together, these two experiences seemed strangely connected. I thought to myself: “We are living in The Twilight Zone.”
The coming of the new year makes one think of the past, as one’s life journey continues and a new year begins. One takes stock of the present, and looks to the future.
What is happening to our Church? In parts of the world, the Church is expanding. But that is not the case where I live. Many of the retreat houses and religious houses, schools, hospitals, parishes, convents, and rectories that I grew up with have closed, disappeared, or been turned into something else. The abuse crisis has taken a heavy toll. Scandals abound. The dwindling numbers of priests and religious have reduced once-thriving institutions. Today no pastors are being named in New York, I am told, because then they would have “rights.” Only administrators.
At first the loss of institutions seems OK. We can cope. Focus on the people near you, focus on something positive. A smaller church, perhaps, but in the mind’s eye it looks the same. Combine the little parishes into a mega-parish. Hey, it feels bigger — we are making progress! But really, it’s smaller.
The problem is that twilight eventually becomes nightfall. Is the loss of the institutions of the church in the Northeastern United States something we can safely ignore as we take up residence in the small pockets of life that remain?
I think we have to face it. Stop playing the tapes in our heads of pastors who are gone, stop rehearsing the phone extension where there is now no one present to answer. Stop pretending that the sisters will come back, that the priest shortage will turn around quickly or without some sort of fundamental changes in who may be ordained.
Change has come upon us, and not the kind of change anyone wanted. This raises the question: What must we do now?
I think we do need to remember those warm pastors and the beautiful churches of yesteryear. Memory is a powerful tool for fostering future hope. Yet the loss of institutions can’t be replaced by wishful thinking or mere nostalgia. We need to start new institutions and bring fresh commitment to the nurture of those institutions we already have. The visionaries who began the parishes and schools and hospitals worked against amazing odds, and overcame them. That same fortitude and courage and commitment is required of us today.
At the very least we’ve got to update those answering machines.
What do you think is needed in order to build up healthy, growing Church institutions today? I ask this as a New Year’s question, but it is a question that can be asked at any time of the year.