March 7, 2002
Where the People Are
At least two Sundays a month, when I am not in the Cathedral for Mass, I travel throughout the Archdiocese to celebrate parish anniversaries or simply to visit the clergy, religious, and laity of our parishes, offering Mass with them and joining them in parish meetings, receptions and such. When possible, I try to add another event in the neighborhood, for instance, the blessing of a new department in a nearby Catholic hospital or just sharing in evening prayer with a local religious community.
The traveling has driven home a fact which particularly the priests of the archdiocese have been emphasizing ever since my arrival here 19 months ago. That fact is simply this: The faithful whom the archdiocese is to serve are with each passing year becoming more concentrated in areas where we have the fewest parishes, schools and charitable institutions. Thus, where Catholics once lived in large numbers, they are now less and less present, and where not so long ago they were hardly to be found at all, their presence is increasing at a remarkable rate.
The inevitable conclusion from all of this is one that I hear on every side. We have to review, readjust and realign how we are providing spiritual, educational and charitable services to our people; and we have to get at it as soon as possible.
This is a situation to be found in every major archdiocese in the United States. Center-cities where most Catholics lived since the arrival of their ancestors in this land are today less and less where they are living now. Many of our people have moved or are moving to the periphery of our cities or to the suburbs; and the Church needs to follow them so as to serve them, that is, to gather them in prayer, to announce the Gospel to them, and to lead them in the works of justice and compassion.
The matter, however, is by no means without problems and complications. Here are just a few.
First, we must never even think of abandoning the center-cities where numerous Catholics of various backgrounds and economic levels continue to reside and where many Catholics who are new arrivals are coming to reside, oftentimes in considerable need. The Catholic Church has always been most at home in cities where the cry for understanding, assistance and guidance is most deeply felt. It can never turn its back on these sectors of the Lord’s vineyard without losing what is most Catholic and most Christ-like about us–our love and care for those who are hurting the most.
Second, in all center-cities of this land, and certainly in the center-city of the "Capital of the World," Catholics have over the past two centuries created splendid churches, schools and institutions of charity. They stand as magnificent tributes to the faith and self-sacrifice of those who went before us. But in many cases they also stand underused or hardly used at all. Nonetheless, they still maintain a powerful hold on the sentiments of many, not a few of whom have long since left the neighborhoods in which they are to be found. To close them or even to reduce their activities can be seen as an offense against the achievements of the past. Memories and attachments of all kinds come into play. "My parents and grandparents were baptized and married there." "Everyone in my family was educated in that school and loved it." "To see that wonderful beacon of charity close would break the hearts of all for whom it was a refuge for generations." Such laments are common in all large American metropolises. Only the names and addresses are different.
Third, new churches, schools and institutions of charity present a daunting challenge, requiring great expense in their construction and numerous priests, deacons, religious and lay leaders in their operation. As we turn our hand to the task of reviewing, readjusting and realigning, we will need all the commitment and courage of the generations that preceded us. They achieved what they achieved only because they loved the Lord and His Church beyond all measure. The same will need to be true of us.
Keenly aware of the challenges that reviewing, adjusting and realigning will entail, but convinced by a multitude of thoughtful voices that the task has to be addressed, I have brought together several small groups to begin to think through how to proceed. We are trying to gain at least an overview of the task by assembling as quickly as possible all the facts that seem to be most relevant. We are meeting at the Catholic Center and in selected areas of the archdiocese first with the clergy and then with the laity to become aware of local insights and local feelings. We are considering areas where we will clearly need to reduce services and areas where we will clearly need to expand them, so as to see the "big picture" and identify where we should begin with pilot projects. At every step we will listen, listen and listen. But we will not permit the preliminaries to stand in the way of moving ahead and getting the job done. Similarly, at every step we will pray, pray and pray for guidance from the Lord and the Lord’s holy people.
All of this is quite generic. With time it will become more specific, just as with time it will become ever more urgent. Before the Lord, we need to have the courage to put ourselves generously and effectively at the service of the faithful of the archdiocese, using our resources wisely and even prayerfully. It is a demanding undertaking, but I have no doubt that we will do it both well and in a timely fashion.
Almost a quarter of a century ago I was living and working in Rome. One evening an American archbishop from one of the largest archdioceses of the nation was chatting after the evening meal with the community of priests with whom I resided. He had just a year or so earlier embarked on the program I have outlined in broad strokes in this brief article. He recounted in lavish detail all of the consultations in which he had participated and all of the criticisms and problems he was facing. It was obvious that he needed to tell the story to persons of faith who would understand and care.
After about two hours of what had been essentially a monologue, he rose and announced, "You were kind to listen. I had to talk. The poor Lord has heard all of this ‘ad nauseam.’ I thought I would give Him a night off."
The next morning, as he was leaving for the airport to return home, I promised my prayers and, for reasons that escape me now, noted that in view of my work in the Vatican, I would never have to face the kind of undertaking he had described the night before.
"Well, if you ever do," he quipped, "get yourself a sturdy kneeler. You will spend a lot of time on it, I assure you."
My kneeler is sturdy and ready.
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York