The time has arrived. All right, the time probably arrived quite a while ago. Now, however, so much evidence indicates that the Catholic Church in America can’t wait any longer.
We need to help remind the world just how special is the one true Church, founded by Jesus Christ. We need especially to share that wonderful news with those people who were raised Catholic or would have been raised Catholic if only their parents had followed accordingly after Baptism.
We need to imitate the earliest Christians: preach more, teach better, love greater.
We need to be fresh. We need to be bold and passionate. And we need to do everything with a real sense of urgency. The souls of millions of people are at stake.
We need to act. Now.
In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, where I live, we are in the process of doing a parish-by-parish self-assessment. My understanding is that there are several goals, including the identification of parishes that might need only one priest and (perhaps) parishes that might be candidates for consolidation or closure in the future.
This is a critical time for my Archdiocese, as well as the entire American Church. We’ve been more fortunate than most dioceses. St. Louis hasn’t had to close many parishes or had many situations in which one priest has to serve as pastor for multiple parishes. Archbishop Robert Carlson and his staff know that will be changing, given the number of priests who will be retiring in the coming 10 years: 43 of the 153 parish pastors will reach the retirement age of 75 by 2025.
The number of young men in formation at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis has increased in recent years – 136 were enrolled last school year, 50 of them from the home Archdiocese – but far from enough to fill the coming need. According to a June 2015 report by the Archdiocese of St. Louis Office of Pastoral Planning, St. Louis is projected to lose a net of six priests a year during the next 10 years.
The crisis involves more than priesthood vocations; there has been steady decline in American Catholic schools enrollment for decades as well. In a 2015 report, the National Catholic Educational Association revealed that in the last 10 years, “1,648 (Catholic) schools were reported closed or consolidated (21.1 percent), while 336 school openings were reported. The number of students declined by 481,016 (19.9 percent). The most seriously impacted have been elementary schools.”
In just the last 10 years, enrollment in Catholic schools for preschool through eighth grade is down 23 percent. The days of so many Catholic parents almost automatically sending their children to the parish grade school are long gone. In 1965, more than 4.4 million students populated about 10,600 Catholic grade schools in the United States; last year, there were 1.36 million students in only 5,300 Catholic grade schools.
In the St. Louis Archdiocese, many schools have entire grades with 15 or fewer students. Yet the people who send children to those schools and the parish communities that support them insist upon keeping their “neighborhood schools” despite some of those schools operating at hundreds of thousands of dollars in the red. Yes, consolidating schools would cost many teachers their jobs. But it’s not fiscally responsible – as a cost to the parents and the parishioners — to support that kind of teacher-to-student ratio. And more dollars to pay fewer teachers should result in higher-quality instruction.
What does it matter if kids attend Catholic schools? The future of the religion in America could be at stake. Consider that in a 2011 National Catholic Reporter survey, 60 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics who attended a Catholic grade school said they never would leave the Church, while less than half of those without Catholic schooling said that.
None of this is earth-shaking news in that we have known about the declines for years: In men and women answering the call to be priests and nuns, in students in Catholic schools, in people attending weekly Mass, in Americans identifying themselves as Roman Catholic. There have been attempts to reverse those numbers. Largely, those attempts have failed.
That the crisis is shaking the foundations of Catholicism in St. Louis should be alarming, though. This has been one of the most vibrant Catholic communities in the country, often affectionately known as the “Rome of the West.” The Archdiocese long as been a hotbed of vocations and Catholic education. With the self-assessment in full swing, the St. Louis Catholic Church of the future surely will not look like that of the past.
We are looking for answers. One thing must be certain: Many of the current and older ways don’t work. And my concern is that any new approaches will merely imitate those tried-and-failed ones of the past. In most parishes, the pastors are heavily participated in the assessment; what pastor will want to acknowledge that his efforts aren’t as fruitful as needed? Liturgists are helping to critique the liturgies for which they are responsible.
Mature Catholics, who are among the most satisfied because they are active parishioners, are supposed to discuss changes that will reach out to younger Catholics. Even though it might be a great idea, will they be willing to give up a 5 p.m. Saturday Mass time in order to allow a 7 p.m. Sunday Mass?
I think it’s time to consider every idea. In generations past, just unlocking the front door of the church on Sunday morning guaranteed full houses for Masses, ringing the morning bell at school virtually guaranteed full classrooms, having a weekly bingo or Bible study or youth group meeting displayed a parish’s vibrancy.
My answers: Evangelize more, catechize better, love more deeply.
If we’re going to imitate anyone, it should be those earliest of Christians. They didn’t sit in a church and wait for the people to come to them. No, they went to the people – into the streets and synagogues, into the homes, on the roads that led to places where the Good News transformed lives. We need to tell them, and we need to teach them.
People need God in their lives and, indeed, are looking for God. Their hearts are waiting for someone to tell them about Jesus Christ. Before we talk about pro-life and religious freedom, before we talk about same-sex marriage and immigration, how about this:
God loves you. He sent His Son to live for you and die for you. He opened heaven up when He rose from the dead.
Jesus is available, in real flesh and blood, every time we receive the Eucharist. He offers tangible forgiveness and absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
When we get to heaven, we might be asked a few things by our God: Did you believe in me? Did you know me? Did you talk about me? Did you teach what I said and what you believed?
Will there be anyone else spending eternity here because of you? After all, that’s what we’ve been told to do. What am I talking about? It’s called “The Great Commission,” from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16-20.
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
That’s meant for all of us. We are to make disciples of others. It’s time for all of us to answer that call.