Six parishes closed. Five merged. Twenty-four clustered. One school closed. Four parishes downgraded to chapel status.
Well, after over a year of preparatory work and research, the diocese announced its plans to cluster and close several parishes in our diocese this week. Since I have gotten into trouble in the past by mentioning my diocese by name on here, I will refrain from mentioning it or any of the personnel involved in this process. Many of you out there may have undergone similar clustering or merging programs, and I hope you will share some of your input on how this made you feel and what kind of effects it had on your parish and your own spiritual life.
The first thing I'd like to observe is how these terrible programs for reductions and cutbacks always have these optimistic names that cloak the real intent. For example, consider Ford Corporation's restructuring plan entitled The Way Forward, which as any autoworker in this area will tell you, is another way to say Reduce the worker's benefits, lay off thousands and ship the jobs to Mexico. The Way Forward indeed. Our diocese has likewise chosen another name full of false optimism: Planning Tomorrow's Churches. Planning Tomorrow's Churches means Closing Today's Churches. Kind of like Planned Parenthood "plans" families by making sure kids aren't born. Planning tomorrow's churches "plans" them by closing them.
Of course, I understand that Ford had to restructure, and I fully agree that my diocese had to do something. But why are we impelled to be such die-hard optimists that we can't call a thing for what it is? Perhaps if we named this thing what it really was, people would realize the severity of the Church's crisis and be more motivated to pray and sacrifice. Instead of Planning Tomorrow's Churches, why not call it We're Closing Churches Because We Lack Priests, People Have Stopped Attending Mass, and Those Who Do Attend Don't Give? That would be more accurate. I guess it's too long, though.
So, let's look at what happened. First of all, in my own parish, it was announced that we would be clustered with a neighboring parish "if and when" it became necessary, and that we would receive pastoral support from a third parish nearby. It was the vaguest thing you could imagine. Any parish will be clustered if and when it needs to be. I guess I am glad we did not definitively get clustered, but basically after all this time the diocese just told us, "We'll cluster you if we need to." At least we were told who we'd be cluster-buddies with, though.
Overall, the reactions from many people in my diocese were that the clustering plan was flawed in some serious ways. First off, financial insolvency was said (by the people at the diocese) to be the reason why certain parishes were closing. A few were closed in Flint a few weeks back who couldn't afford to turn their heat on, pay their electric bills, etc. But many immediately noticed that there was a huge problem with the parishes who were clustered: two well-off parishes in one region were clustered together, even though one parish has no debt and has experienced an increase in giving in the past year, and the other is one of the most affluent in the region. Meanwhile, the only parish in the region that was not clustered just took out millions in debt to build a brand new church building (that many said was not needed) and currently has two mortgages. Why cluster the affluent parish and the one with no debt and leave the one with millions in debt to itself? Clearly, financial insolvency is not the only factor at work here.
Second, there was one single region in our diocese in which no parish was touched or clustered, not even the rural parish with no weekday Masses and a dinky congregation. One parish in this region is so in debt that the employee's paychecks have been bouncing for years, and another took out a huge loan to build a new parish church and school. They built the school but then ran out of money for the church. It remains unfinished. Neither of these two fiscally insolvent parishes were clustered. Why was this one region alone spared any clustering? The diocese says it was because of growing population, but I know for a fact that at least two and maybe three of these parishes have lost hundreds of members in the past few years. Clearly the population boom is not affecting them. What gives?
I know very little about the process of what parishes were closed, clustered and left alone. Perhaps there were politics involved, like some priest on some vicariate didn't like some pastor. Maybe some other parishes stood to gain by the losses of others. Or maybe there was no alterior motive, just plain blundering. Whatever. I don't know. I only know what we were told, and we were told that it was largely a financial question. If that is the case, then it makes very little sense to me.
However, part of this plan was also supposed to be based on a priest shortage. I do not doubt there is a real priest shortage, but hasn't this become a buzz-phrase to justify every sort of alteration in parish management? It is ironic that one of the parishes clustered is the one that accounts for 40% of the seminarians in the entire diocese. That's right: for years now, dozens of parishes have had no vocations, but this one parish has churned out three or four per year for many years. It must be thriving, right? Even so, it got clustered.
Many of the parishes that were set to be clustered are not going have their clustering implemented until their priest gets a new assigment or finds somewhere else to go. But wait a minute...what does that mean? It's like they are saying, "We'll cluster your parish just as soon as we find something for your priest to do." But I thought there was a priest shortage? If there is, surely there ought to always be something for the priest to do, or somewhere for him to go? So, on the one hand, we have to close and cluster because of a shortage. On the other hand, in the meantime some priests just have to hang tight until we can find somewhere for them to go. It just all seems weird...
Well, I don't understand the reasoning. But in everything I've seen from my diocese in the past seven years, the strategy is always retreat, withdraw and sullenly accept the status quo. A diocesan paper a few months back lamented the shortage of priests and trumpeted as the ideal solution the giving over of more power and control to the lay people. The article featured a picture of a fifty-some year old female "pastoral coordinator" with a butch hair cut as the model lay-ruler of "tomorrow's parishes." Brilliant! How about actually making a real effort to attract more vocations? I'll tell you: the model of the Church that we have been operating under here is not one that attracts vocations, that's why. And the more we give over control to laity, the less of a persona the priest will be in the life of the Church and even less people will want to become priests. We don't need priests who act like us and talk like us: we need priests who are signs of contradiction, who by their dress, demeanor and words are a constant reminder of the life to come and whose very presence reminds us of our spiritual life. They ought to be set apart, isolated from us in many ways, so that the laymen perceives them as something mysterious and wholly other, and from that other (which is God), the priest must draw his strength, and that strength alone will draw men to seek out what the priesthood alone gives to men: a special union with Christ and the power of Christ to do good on this earth.
Well, back to my diocese: no further cutbacks or clusters are planned for the future, but there will inevitably be more and more until Catholicism is extinct, or until the Church at large jettisons this bankrupt ecclesiological vision they've been nursing for the past forty years and gets back to reality.