January 8, 2015
Mission, Not Maintenance, Should Be Our Focus
Over the last couple of days, I received a number of e-mails asking if I had seen the front page article in the Wall Street Journal of Saturday-Sunday, January 3-4, 2015.
No, I had not, since my physician, to lower my blood pressure, has advised me to avoid salt and newspapers. However, given the inquiries from some folks, I thought I had better take a look at it.
The article was headlined, “Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale,” and narrated how the grave decline in Catholic practice had sadly led bishops and pastors in classically fervent Catholic European countries (France, Holland, Germany, for instance) to close and sell thousands of churches, which were now largely empty and too costly to maintain.
Is this what you’re bringing us to, the angry correspondents asked me, with this stupid, silly Making All Things New, and the senseless mergers of dozens of our parishes?
Praying for patience, I replied, “No, it’s actually what we’re trying to avoid!”
Let me share with you what I tried to bring to their attention:
For one, thank God, we Catholics in the archdiocese and, actually, in the United States as a whole, are not, like the article concluded about Europe, in decline. True, our rate of practice has gone down a lot from the hey-day of half-a-century ago, with now only about 15% of our Catholics faithfully attending Mass every Sunday. True, we, too, confront a secular tide—telling us that we can get along just fine without God, faith, religion, or the Church—but hardly as aggressive as in Europe. In fact, thanks to immigration and converts, the census of Catholics in the archdiocese, about 2.8 million people, remains steady. And, fortunately, thanks in large measure to my predecessor, Cardinal Egan, who was remarkably devoted to supporting our parishes, the archdiocese is pastorally strong and financially stable.
Two, though, the dramatic demographic shifts of Catholics, especially from Manhattan, the Bronx, and parts of Westchester, and the decline in Mass attendance, has led to half-empty churches in aging buildings, most living off rental income from space no longer needed, with other parishes only blocks away. Meanwhile, in the upper counties, people are jammed into little chapels, “temporary churches,” or basements and gymnasiums, yearning to build new churches, or at least expand the ones they’ve got, and hoping the archdiocese can help them out, as we did decades ago with the now less needed churches in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Westchester. Why can’t the archdiocese do that? Because we’re using a lot of our money to fix and maintain the old ones in the city!
Three, these same growing parishes ask for more priests, as do our high schools, college campuses, hospitals, our men and women in uniform, charitable apostolates, and nursing homes. Once again, priests are in parishes with declining numbers, with another parish only blocks away, who could be put to better use elsewhere.
Four, although the critics will insist otherwise, unlike the Europe described in the article, we’re not anticipating an immediate, widespread sale of churches and parish property. The properties that belonged to the two former parishes that merged now belong with the newly established merged parish. If, in the future, the new parish decides it does not need, or can no longer support, the extra buildings, we’ll then have to patiently think about what to do with them, which might include alternate Church uses, community uses, rental, redevelopment, or, as a possible last resort, to sell them.
Even then, there would be scrupulous steps to follow, according to civil and canon law, and with permission sometimes even needed from Rome. If there are any proceeds from unused properties, the revenue would not go to that mean, selfish, money-hungry archdiocese, so that Dolan can maintain his mansion (part of the cathedral itself, and which actually makes money each year hosting fund-raisers for our schools and charities), or pay off that boondoggle Cathedral repair (which, in advance gifts alone, is already over half-way funded), or pay off the bills from that clergy sex abuse scandal (there are none), but would, by Church law, go to the new parish. (In all honesty, I must also be up front and let you know that, when a parish comes into a windfall, a fair way to share proceeds from unused properties with the wider Church in the archdiocese, and to help fortify the array of apostolates and needs you told us we must support—e.g., new churches, our Catholic schools, our religious education, charity, healthcare, our elders, our seminary, our pro-life work, our support of marriage and families, our immigrants, our Catholic college students, better communications, our aging priests and sisters, etc.—would have to be arranged, so that we don’t have the injustice of some parishes on EZ street, others struggling, and much needed ministries hamstrung. This has been the case in the archdiocese for more than 30 years. For instance, when a parish now rents an unused school building, the proceeds are shared with the local regional school system.)
It all comes down to what Pope St. John Paul II called the New Evangelization: are we going to use all our energy and resources—human and financial—maintaining the old, huge infrastructure of the past, put in place during the past years of 80% rates of Catholic fervor and participation, with an endless supply of priests, sisters, and children; or do we transform to mission, liberating ourselves from institutional caretaking and recapturing the gospel spirit of filling up the churches?
Europe, according to the Wall Street Journal article, is now choked and fatigued by maintenance. We will be, too, if we do not “cast out to the deep” and become a missionary Church, more concerned about winning souls, coaxing the fallen-away back, and inviting new converts, than in keeping afloat parishes no longer essential to meet the needs of the people in that neighborhood. I think we would all rather be involved in the New Evangelization, rather than spending time and money on repairing the boiler and fixing the roof.
I don’t want some newspaper doing a story in 2050 about how my successor down the line has to do what many parts of Europe are now having to do: figuring out how to sell empty, crumbling churches, to keep paying the hospice bill to keep the Church breathing.
We here in the archdiocese are hardly on hospice. No! We’re still young, growing, vibrant. We are not in the grim situation of other dioceses which have had to merge and close a much greater percentage of their parishes.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge the pain and sadness that these mergers will cause those whose parishes are merging, particularly for those whose churches will no longer be used for Mass and sacraments on a regular basis. This does not mean that these were “bad” parishes. Far from it! But we must take these steps to make sure that we are doing all we can to meet the needs of the people in this archdiocese as they exist now and, as best as we can anticipate, into the future. To stay strong, we have to make a few tough and painful decisions now, realistic about the changing needs of our Catholic people and where they now live, the number of our priests, and the proper stewardship of the money you, God’s People, entrust to us.
I have yet to meet a single person who is “happy” that the archdiocese is involved in merging parishes. I know that I wish that this could be avoided! But I am encouraged and strengthened by the many people, both priests and parishioners, who have said to me, “Cardinal Dolan, we love our parish, and wish everything could stay like it is, but we understand why this merger is needed. You can bet we will work to create a new parish family in our new home.”
Thanks for listening!