Today I want to tell you what keeps me awake at night. In short, it’s the fear that we’ll no longer be able to do the job Christ has given us as a parish – to guide and save souls through the Gospel and the sacraments and through life together in a communion that serves others wisely and well.
I believe that the Gospel and the wisdom of the saints through the ages is a compass that shows people how to live together in peace. I believe that daily prayer and weekly worship are vital for most people if they’re to live satisfying and generous lives. I believe that ignorance of the Christian tradition is soul-killing and leaves many young people lost in the wilderness of today’s culture. I believe that habits of justice, truth-telling, responsibility, and charity are too rare. And I believe that the parish – our parish – is a priceless guide and remedy that is now at risk.
In a few minutes now I’m going to lay out for you how I understand our situation. I’d be lying to you if my message today was, “All is well, we can relax and go on as we have.” All is not well, we can’t relax, and if we go on as we have we’re going to exhaust ourselves and go broke, still without doing the work Christ calls us to do – and we’re going to leave a lot of lost young people and struggling families and isolated seniors without the help we might have provided for each other.
There’s much more than I have time for today, and I’ll return to these topics over the next few months. Today is for the “big picture”: five things:
First, to understand our situation you have to see that it is upside-down from what it was when Our Lady of Grace was founded. In 1962, religious membership was widespread, socially-approved, and more-or-less expected. There were ample numbers of generous religious vocations. Today, practicing Christians are effectively a minority and priests and religious are scarce. (Factoid: There are about 19,000 names of supposed Catholics on the parish database: typical Sunday attendance: 1900. That’s one in ten Catholics who practice at the expected level, to take just one measure.)
Our neighborhood, in 1962, was a growing area of largely young families with solid jobs in a prospering national economy. Today one-third of our parish membership is retired or disabled; and of the rest many are jobless, struggling to stay in their homes, or dealing with the consequences of family breakdown, or addiction, or the like. Though the parish and the neighborhood may look about the same, underneath things could hardly be more different. This is the new context for our life and mission.
So point one: Our situation is radically different from how we started out, and requires a different sort of response if we’re to do our job. Rather than riding cultural momentum, we’re fighting it; and the “old days” aren’t coming back.
Second, the campus and buildings and ways of ministering that the first generation created made sense for their work at that time – but right from the start, as with the shift away from having a parish school as soon as the building was built, it was clear that those assumptions belonged to the past and not to the future. If we started over today we’d never build this sort of church and Center even if we could afford to. But we have it, and have to make the best of it. Our buildings are going on fifty years old, and over these past two years we’ve spent almost half a million dollars to repair them and keep them fit for use. We’re doing well, especially with Angel Care and Summer Fun and now our new Day Care, in using our campus to serve the neighborhood – young families in particular – while covering at least some of the cost of keeping the lights on. But we have to subsidize all our other activities out of Sunday collections and fund-raising – Faith Formation, Parish Social Ministry, worship, society gatherings, and everything else that uses this space; and a dwindling congregation is finding it hard to do that. To take just one example, we subsidize every child in faith formation about $200 a year beyond their tuition. And it’s hardly a secret that few graduates of Faith Formation, despite catechists’ best efforts, continue to practice the faith after they’ve “gotten their sacraments.” A few years ago I did an informal check on how many of our recently Confirmed students were going to Mass on a typical Sunday. The number I got was 3%. (This is, by the way, typical from what I’ve seen of other, careful surveys. It’s not that we’re doing something wrong; no one knows what to do. Even the highest-quality youth programs have similar results.)
Summarizing point two: Past ways of doing things are no longer working; although some innovations are doing well, others aren’t and there is no clear path into the future.
Three: A surprisingly-large number of people in our parish need to get this particular message: Attitude matters. In fact, attitude is more of a concern to me than money is, when I think about our future. When we did the Gallup surveys a few years ago, we found that Our Lady of Grace was much higher than typical Catholic parishes in what’s called “active disengagement.” Scoring high on that is not a good thing: “Active disengagement” is preoccupation with “my feelings” or “my interests” or “my comfort” to the degree that it trumps the common good and the work of the parish. Most Catholic parishes have about 35% of their members actively disengaged – awful enough, when you think about it. Our Lady of Grace was measured by Gallup at 42%. How do we move the boat forward if almost half our people are rowing us in the other direction?
We all know people who regularly complain to other people about parish life – who gripe a lot about parish leadership (but won’t talk directly to the leaders who can actually do something about their concerns) – or who use parish services – even regularly – but don’t support the parish in their attitude, conversation, money, and time. Who would want to be part of a community in which 42% of the membership only cooperates when it suits them? What message about the importance of the church community does that give to children or grandchildren?
So point three: (We can take it right from the words of Jesus): “If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” [Mt 16:24] The parish lives (or dies) on the degree of members’ readiness to take responsibility and to sacrifice for the common good. That leads to –
Four: I believe that the next few years will have to see a major shift in how we understand and live our parish life. From the beginning Our Lady of Grace has been a “high-service, high-cost” operation: Lots of activities and programs, extensive buildings, and with that a readiness to employ a large staff and pay them (although lay employee salaries here are shockingly low).
I’m delighted that people often comment to me, after visiting other parishes, that they love it that our church and office are open for so many hours each week; they don’t see that elsewhere. I’m happy we can do it – that we can provide so many sorts of activities and services and conveniences.
But given everything I’ve said already, I don’t know how much longer we can continue. A shrinking number of people who contribute time and effort and money, many already retired, can’t be expected to support ministries and conveniences for a much larger group who treat the parish like a religious supermarket, coming for occasional services when they feel they need them. We have to become a community – more than we are now – in which everybody takes responsibility for our community’s existence.
The era of the “high-service, high cost, low responsibility” parish is coming to an end. We can probably expect a parish of the future that offers fewer non-core services, offers that core through more volunteer effort and fewer employed staff, and is of necessity less-accommodating to the only-occasionally-interested.
So point four: the parish will be substantially different in the future, with more “do-it-with-one-another” core activities (like worship, faith formation, and care for the poor), and fewer non-core and professionally-provided activities.
My fifth and final point for today: I believe that these circumstances –
- A new situation that requires a different response;?
- Past ways of doing things that are clearly no longer working;?
- A community weaker than it should be because it doesn’t lay out clearly the challenge and expectations of real discipleship;
- The coming change from diverse and employee-provided services toward more volunteer responsibility and more focus on core functions –
All of these are at least potentially a source of renewed vitality.
One brief final note: Next week you’ll hear briefly from a member of our Pastoral Council about open seats for the coming term. The Council will be key in planning our future together, so I encourage you to give what they have to say your full attention.
If you want one thing to take home from what I’ve said today, it’s this question: “What am I being invited to take responsibility for so that the life of Christ can flourish in Our Lady of Grace?” For some of you, it might be generosity with time and/or money – you can give more of those. Or it might be habits that are comfortable for you but hurt our life together (think griping, criticizing – even slovenliness in how you leave the pews, or whether you park in a no-parking zone when you come to Mass). Or it could be a too-casual attitude toward fulfilling the responsibilities of a ministry you’ve volunteered for. Or it could be attachment to a familiar custom or pattern in how your ministry or society has run – you need a readiness to welcome new faces and new ideas, or to change when or where you meet or what you focus on doing.
So that’s the “state of the parish” as I see it. Do you want to help make it better? Then this is the question: how are you willing to take increased responsibility so that the Risen Christ can do His work through us, together?