The future rings the bells of uncertainty for Catholic churches



STAFF WRITERI remember the days when the pews in my church would fill in a matter of seconds with few, if any parking lots available.
Sunday mornings were full enough for the 10:30 mass. But on Saturday afternoons, I recall my parents warning me to be ready by 3:15 in order to get a seat in time for the 4 p.m. mass, which always brought a crowd of parishioners.
This may have been the case for as long as I could remember, but today the trend has changed faster than I can say “Amen.” Only recently did I notice how dramatically attendance has changed at church when my parish priest discussed the importance of our participation in a survey that will ultimately change the structure of Catholic churches in our state and perhaps in the nation.
“Bishops don’t close parishes—people close them,” he told us one Sunday morning.
Although I cannot estimate how many people attend the 10:30 mass on Sundays, it seems like there is only a handful of parishioners. Unless its Christmas, finding a seat doesn’t seem to be a problem one bit, but rather filling one is the challenge my church in Waterbury faces.
Recently, my parish priest shared a letter from Archbishop Leonard Blair announcing a “pastoral planning process” for the Archdiocese of Hartford that will begin over the next three to five years. In his online blog, Archbishop Blair noted some startling trends that have occurred during the 21st century in the Catholic Church. Compared to the archdiocese’s statistics from 1967, the Archdiocese of Hartford in 2013 had 68 percent fewer diocesan priests, 71 percent fewer religious sisters, and 78 percent fewer baptisms. Recently, Archbishop Blair ordained only three new priests.
Also, the average Mass attendance in our archdiocese on a given Sunday was 395,000 in 1969. Last year, that number was 139,000.
“Institutionally, the church in our archdiocese, like so many others in the Northeast and Midwest, is not what it was,” wrote Archbishop Blair in his blog.
With the pastoral planning process comes a survey administered online and in paper form as well as focus group meetings, interviews and questionnaires.
From reasons for attending your parish to how often you attend to whether or not you attended a Catholic school, the survey asked a variety of multiple choice questions. Archbishop Blair encouraged all parishioners for their collaboration and cooperation in the survey.
My parish priest made the message clear: exercising our voice on this survey was pivotal for the future of our church and other churches in the state. Immediately, I began filling out the survey on my way home from mass that Sunday, nearly in shock at what could happen if I didn’t participate. I knew it was time to take action on my part.
“I need to fill this out,” my conscience kept telling me.
Although the future of my church or any other churches remains unclear, the possibilities cannot be denied: either one can close its doors or consolidate with another parish. My church, which was established in the 19th century, served a large population of Italian immigrants for years. The majority of my father’s side of the family was baptized there, attended mass regularly there, went through Sunday school there, and mourned there during funerals. I myself also was baptized there. The emotional connection I have with the church is indescribable, and the thought that it could possibly close in the future is daunting. For me, that church is a piece of family treasure.
“The challenges we face today are not ultimately about gloom and doom, but about repositioning ourselves for a spiritually rich and vibrant future,” Archbishop Blair said in his blog. “It’s precisely here that the challenge and opportunities of pastoral planning come into play.”
The Catholic Church may be facing some difficult challenges today, but it’s not the end. Perhaps these challenges are necessary in order to create a new kind of church—one that is stronger. I imagine the day when those church parking lots and pews will fill up quickly again.
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Lisa Capobianco is a reporter for The Observer. She can be reached at lcapobianco@BristolObserver.comlisa capobianco