Don’t Bury Us Alive!– How the Priest Shortage and Parish Closures Affect Religious Education

Our small-ish rural parish recently lost its resident priest. We now have a Parish Life Coordinator (PLC) who is a Sister from a nearby convent, and we share a priest with another nearby parish.

Many fear that these measures are just the first step in the ultimate closure of our parish. The Archdiocese asked us to combine as many programs as possible with our sister parish, and to look at further means of cutting expenditures. One of the first things our PLC did was fire our Director of Religious Ed (DRE) and discontinue the religious education program with the understanding that our youth would attend Faith Formation at our sister parish.

Needless to say, many parishioners had a problem with funneling our parish’s future members into another Church. So for the moment, Religious Ed will go on, but no one knows yet in what form that will be.

When I wrote about my ideal catechetical program for the whole family, it was not just a pie-in-the-sky ideal I had in mind. Our DRE developed a program very much like it before her position was terminated.

It began with an ecumenical effort between many different churches in the community, to write to the local schools and sports programs asking for a reprieve from athletic activities on Wednesday nights. For the most part, the request was honored.

Then every Wednesday night at our Parish, volunteers prepared and served dinner for families attending religious ed. Following dinner, the kids went to their various grade level classes, and the grown-ups went to adult catechesis. We all regrouped in the sanctuary after class for some form of traditional Catholic prayer–Benediction, Rosary, Chaplet of Divine Mercy, Liturgy of the Hours, or Mass.

Serving dinner to families during the week was something we could do because we were a smaller parish with a firm but comparatively large network of volunteers. Over the years, the volunteers rotated in and out, and yes, some felt burn-out, but the pay-off for the parish was considerable.

Friends who have moved away to larger suburban parishes have said that they never realized what a gift the dinner was to the Parish life. It brought the children in for spiritual formation, but did not exclude the parents. It nurtured both community and family life. “No other parish does anything like that,” said a former parishioner who is looking for a new spiritual home in another state.

Parents didn’t feel like they had to surrender their children or their education to strangers. They were invited to be a part of it, and the catechists were friends because of fellowship shared over dinner, in addition to Mass.

With the recent changes in our parish, people are now wondering how to roll over and surrender all that we’ve worked for, mainly the sense of community we’ve built and the bonds of trust formed between families and parish leaders.

Other nearby closures are certainly taking a toll on the laity’s ability to trust Church leadership.

Diocesan missives announcing recent closures are loaded with corporate double-speak, for example: “Plan to energize Terre Haute deanery includes closing four parishes and creating new faith ties.” 

Or here, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati attempts to explain what it means for Parishes to work in a collaborative manner:

Collaboration: This is experienced when the parishes articulate and take “ownership of a common mission” and “work together for a common goal” e.g., “developing a plan to be a vibrant collaborative pastoral region.”

I do wonder what happens to the local, the personal–what is truly vibrant–when you’re talking about a “pastoral region” that can only be a network of strangers struggling to find a common mission, when the communities they serve have vastly different needs.

Our Parish was founded when it consisted of a mere 100 souls. When the Parish grew to 30 families, we built a church. Thirty Catholic families in the area was a sign of hope. Now parishes three times that size are closing.

I say No. This is not the correct answer to the shortage of priests.

Our God is the God of the living. He does not intend demise; we have to choose it.

I recently attended a talk by Brother Cassian Derbes, O.P., a wonderfully dynamic speaker from the Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Joseph. Speaking to the shortage of priests and other challenges in the Church today, he said:

To Hope is to will an arduous or difficult good. We have to identify the good, desire it and move towards it. Hope is the ability and willingness to be surprised by God, and not to become a skeptic when God answers prayer.”

I believe that we, the laity, must work harder, pray harder, reach out more, to find tomorrow’s priests, and this happens best in the person to person relationships that intimate community life provides. I would implore Church leadership, do not continue hacking away at the living, breathing personality that comprises each Parish community. We are not dead yet.





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About Elizabeth Duffy