I read an article just now about the closures of parishes in Bayonne NJ (in the Archdiocese of Newark) that will narrow the number of parishes from 5 to 2. This scene plays out regularly now in the USA. A lot can be attributed to population and demographic shifts. I think, however, these reasons become fall guys for the real underlying problems. Without knowing the specifics of the reasons in Bayonne, hence I am not speaking directly to that situation, there are multiple reasons why a parish closes. Oftentimes it is the result of a perfect storm of the following:
A) They became country clubs people didn't want to belong to. So many parishes are about as welcoming to new people as a snooty country club is to non-members. There have been times I have seen a scene from Caddyshack play out, where Judge Smails sneers at another character who seems interested in the club , "Some people just don't belong." This wasn't a problem demographically until Catholics started to mimic the society around them and started using artificial birth control and contracepting themselves out of existence. We weren't producing our own Catholics nor actively evangelizing either. We ignored two teachings of the Church (contraception and evangelization) and thought all would go well.
The word many use to describe their parishes is 'cold'. Many think this means what people are looking for is handshakes, slaps on the back, and an atmosphere just shy of a football game. What they mean is that they can go for years to a church and never be acknowledged even discreetly, their suffering goes unnoticed, and their needs unfulfilled. Mass becomes a prefunctionary duty which seems little more than putting face time in with God. These people are largely in danger of leaving and taking subsequent generations with them.
They tire of the infighting, turf wars, gossip, and back biting. That is what the rest of their world looked like. They weren't looking for the same in their church.
B) The transcendence was gone. I think it is a understated and maybe even not totally conscious understanding, that what people want is from their Church is to be reminded that there is a personal God, that He wants a relationship with us, and that we can come into contact with this transcendent God at Mass. When Mass becomes about entertaining the congregants, it switches the direction.
When the focus became either the priest putting on a good show that would resonate emotionally with people or focused on the congregation as if they were theater goers looking to be entertained, well, we were competing on a field where we couldn't win. We don't have the special effects capabilities. Not saying a lot of churches don't try, but when we do, it is like digging the hole deeper. People came to encounter the transcendent and got a song and dance about the transcendent. They leave going to look for the transcendent somewhere else (aka spiritual but not religious).
C) These two factors lead to a vocation crisis. We simply do not have the clergy to man the parishes anymore. I have lots of theories about this. I will speak of a couple pertinent to this monologue. First, what inspires a young man to anything? Example. If the Mass is a show, how does that inspire? A person so disposed to entertainment could go into secular fields of entertainment and get married and make a lot more money! When no plea is constantly made towards the selflessness that encountering the transcendent requires, then why bother thinking of others' needs when I can accomplish the same end without all the moral baggage and disciplines required?
If the parish is a business like a country club, why give my life to that? I can go into business and make more money and get married. Unlike the church, where there seems to be no penalty for doing your job poorly, business rewards success and punishes ineptitude. If the only encounters a young man is afforded is either a happy clappy condescending attitude that wants to entertain them or a cold poorly executed Mass in which the priest seems indifferent, can we blame them for not connecting with a understanding of the transcendence of God and how His Church connects us to that?
Now place this in the societal milieu that routinely criticizes and stereotypes Catholic clergy as cold, hypocrites, predators, and emotionally dead. If the local parish offers no counter-balance to this, how on earth do we expect any other outcome as opposed to the one we have? It is not as if we are bringing a knife to a gun fight, we are bringing a handkerchief!
D) These have led to a further problem: Catholics notoriously do not invest in their parish nor tithe. It did not used to be that way. I laugh when I hear about how rich the church is. Sure, some live like princes (wait till they have to stand before God on that one), but most every parish financially struggles. They do this despite paying less to their employees across the board. They do this despite continual cut backs. But let's be honest. Who wants to invest in mediocrity? Who wants to invest in programs that don't teach the faith? Who wants to invest in Churches that do not do their jobs? Who wants to invest in the dwindling and failing?
Now pair this with the aforementioned business mode the church in this country takes. We quit talking about the thanksgiving offering as an offering made to God. We replaced it with 'we got to pay the bills' motif which switched the tithing from a thanksgiving offering to God to a 'pay for play.' This turned the collection into essentially a cash register where how much is given is dependent upon the services used by the parishioner. These are self tallied and what is seen as what things are worth becomes the amount. We managed to take God out of the offering and replace it with human beings. How is that working our for us?
I'll be honest, sometimes parishes can come across as Monsieur and Madame Thernadier from Les Miserables, singing 'here a little nip, there a little cut' in the numerous fees we charge for services rendered. Want a baptism? That'll be $50 bucks. Want to get married? That'll be $100 for the priest and $500 to use the Church. Want to get Grandma buried? Sure, that'll cost you $100. Need to petition for an annulment? Yeah, sure, bring your checkbook! And on and on and on. Where fees for sacraments (stole fees) are the only source of income for parishes (think the developing world where collections are a exercise in futility as no one has money to give) this makes sense. But for a place such as the US where we slide collection baskets under people's noses on a regular basis, it engenders cynicism. When we project the idea of money for services rendered, we go from the familial bond to a business. Like with businesses, people will go where they get a better bang for their buck. As an aside, what does this attitude do to the motif of pastor as father? What dad charges his kids for attending their special events in life?!
E) Finally, we forgot we were supposed to a family, a People of God, the Bride of Christ. All of the above points to this. A family seeks to expand through childbirth and marriage. When we contracept ourselves out of existence or refuse to evangelize for fear of getting the 'wrong type' (defend that one before God), we will have no other conclusion but the shrinking of our congregations. When we keep settling for mediocrity, the dominant business model we use will be our undoing. Consider that families will be much more patient with the quirks and shortcomings of their family members. Business patrons will abandon a mediocre business, no matter how good it once was. When our fellow parishioners suffer and we do nothing (I mean would be do something for those who happen to shop in the same store we do?) it tears at the fabric of the family. When forgiveness is withheld, divisions fomented, turf wars commonplace, and general indifference is shown to expansion, how can we not think this contraction will happen?
Underlying all of this is the onerous fact that we have done such an incredibly poor job of catechesis in this country, adapting the societal 'feel good' and social reconstruction to our teachings, that we have rendered those teachings moot. When encounter with the Transcendent God, whether it be in Mass or in our daily dealings got replaced with a social justice agenda in which Jesus is little more than a cheer leader, how did not think this will come back to bite us?
In short, if we want to stop this contraction: Get up, start reaching out for new members, put down the game console and pick a Bible and catechism (or some book that presents Church teaching on a level you can understand), start demanding better of your parish and get about the Mission of the Church. If the parish is no more than a convenient place and time to go to Mass, then you are adding to the problem. Don't do that! If you are a priest: shut down the business and go back to being the dad of the parish. Take your responsibilities seriously, understanding that your parishioners are God's flock first and you will be held accountable for your shepherding of them. Treat the sacraments with the dignity and respect due them; if you don't believe, how will your flock? Get out of your rectory! After 50+ years it has become all too clear that the sheep will not shepherd themselves.
There is nothing wrong that cannot be undone and corrected. Why? Because at the heart of this all stands Christ. We believe that Christ is victorious. Perhaps we need to start acting like that!