I have tried for some time to figure out how to tactfully write this column. I do not wish to come across as whiny nor as have given up the fight for neither are true. The conventional wisdom is to soft peddle these concerns so as to not drive away anyone who is barely hanging on. The soft peddling is not working. Perhaps a little tough love is needed. I am aiming at that: tough love. Tough in that sometimes it is necessary to face unpleasant truths. Love in that the goal is to jostle enough awareness to change to a trajectory that leads to heaven.
This column is not aimed at my parish per se in that most every pastor will have similar laments and concerns. These are the things that grieve me most as a pastor in the 16 years I have been a pastor. It should be encouraging that these are the things that grieve me for it shows where I hope to take any parish. To my own parish, there will be nothing new here in that we have working on this for several years now. These are reflected in the pastoral plan we have put together and will present next week. These, however, are the battles we face.
So in no particular order:
1. We know we are not a priority To the overwhelming number of people we are not a priority. We're just not. We're not in their lives nor their children's lives. I am not sure there was ever a golden age on this one. However, we know that for many that the parish is not a priority. It is a convenience. The sin of anything in the eye of the parishioners we try to do starts with the sin of being inconvenient. Everything must be convenient. Mass times...youth events...classes...you name it, we have to somehow wedge ourselves into the minuscule time allotments that are the scraps of the weekly time allotment in people's lives. We are not what schedules are arranged around. We get the scraps.
This makes planning anything nightmarish. We know that we are seen as less important than sports (any level), a whole host of leisure activities, and life in general. Youth ministers walk a mine field knowing that the windows they have to get youth's attention are growing smaller and smaller by the day. We know that non-faith formation events will take precedence over everything religious, even Mass itself. To try and draw, we feel this need to compete with these things by being fun, loud, and low impact. It is like lasing a stick of dynamite. We are told we must cede ground to schools (even catholic schools), coaches, instructors, and bosses. As we aren't the parents, many times we are left to the nose bleed sections of our young flock's life. If we care, and I do, it hurts.
When we complain, we are shrugged off with a legion of excuses: if only you all would _________. So , we have to pray that some will see us a priority. Thankfully a minority does.
2. We are barely catholic. To be Catholic means to be in a relationship with God AND His Body, the Church. Many, however have bought a very worldly view of this. God is wherever I want him: in nature, on a fishing boat, in a whole host of places outside of the churches. He is the non-judgemental rubber stamp who is pleased with me despite my minimal to non-existent effort. The majority stay away Sunday after Sunday. they teach their children to do the same.
Many times it is because they find a Church that is as cold as ice and lacks transcendence so much that it seems little more than a poorly executed glee club. It is hard to convince people to seek God with us when it is hardly discernible whether we in the church building are actively seeking the transcendent God. This is much more than ritual, a Latin Mass can be just as dead as any other.
The devotional life is barely discernible. The Church building sits empty most of the time. Prayer seems to be waning.
3. Christian witness is hard to provoke. Our faith is evangelical by nature. It is meant to be proclaimed and powerfully lived. It is a not a private function of the person. We have allowed the world to tell us to be quiet about faith lest we be considered intolerant. We have allowed ourselves to be bullied by the intolerant tolerant. Timidity has swallowed up our witness. We see so many parishes fold, close, and such because of demographic shifts. It wasn't as if other people didn't move in, but since they weren't Catholics, we stuck to our country club until membership dried up. We are content with not doing the things to not only insure our own survival, but avoid retaking lost ground and getting about the business of the kingdom.
Too many times we regulate our witness to being do-gooders. Don't get me wrong, the corporal works of mercy are necessary as a strong witness. However, they can not be done in isolation of the spiritual works of mercy. There is nothing merciful about writing off others, even this society itself, as going to hell in a hand basket. Mercy should open our hands and mouths. Such silence is NOT a virtue.
4. We know we have created this monster. This is the poison pill that keeps many a cleric quiet and trapped in learned helplessness. We pastors know that we cannot blame the laity for this one. No, what we are seeing is decade upon decade of watered down catechesis, watered down liturgy, catering to entertainment demands, and generally being milquetoast when we needed to stand. We failed to feed the flock so it went to the wolves who promised to feed them, even if in feeding them they were fattening them up for the slaughter.
We made opaque the transcendent God by abandoning the heavenly for the earthly. We replaced beauty with banality. We so watered down morality that we left the people believing everyone goes to heaven. While there never has been a golden age in the Church, we know that in the present age, points 1-3 are monsters of our own making.
5. We know turning this around is a near impossible task. Here I can say that in the parish I am in, I see signs of life blossoming, but it was no small task. Many of my brothers, though, look at the task as insurmountable. Given the sizes of the parishes in most areas and the sheer costs of running the parishes, we can be terrified that any effort to right the ship will be met with even emptier pews and shrinking coffers to pay the bills. Sometimes we can define success in terms of how little the loss was under our time. Very few even considering expansion an option, save where there are population shifts.
The truth is that it is and will be a battle with each square inch won back at tremendous effort. The best we can hope for is a baby step at a time. Notice, I said 'near impossible' and not merely 'impossible'. Don't forget that grace utilized will conquer sin. We are not alone in this battle: Christ leads us.
This leaves us in parish ministry (whether cleric or lay) with a choice to make: do we simply wait out our time or do we regain our footing and start addressing these issues? It is not enough to state what is wrong and then shrug our shoulders and walk away. We are responsible before God for the care we gave His flock. Tough love is going to be required. It is going to be required within our families and parishes. Making faith really a priority is going to necessitate our helping them. We won't help them by pandering to the lowest common denominator. We will help them by teaching the Gospel in its fullness. We cannot expect parents to stand their ground if we will not stand ours. We cannot expect them to witness if we will not. We cannot ask them to make hard choices if we won't.
We are not without hope. We might well have abandoned God, but He has not abandoned us. It is not going to be easy. Not for any of us. My final lament as a pastor is that we need more to gain hope and faith. I know that all I can do is propose these things, I cannot impose them. I simply do not possess the ability to make people respond I as would have them do. Free will is like that, it is left to the choice of the individual. That I cannot change. I can offer, teach, and try to do what is wanted of me by God. I cannot make those who do not wish to see to see. All I can do is try to shed a light of truth. That is all.
Final thought: notice what doesn't grieve me...money.. Not because we have it, but because I run a parish and not a business.