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, most parishioners had a problem with outsourcing our youth and 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, we’ll call her Linda, developed a program very much like it.

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. Larger donors don’t know whether to continue investing in a church that will ultimately close. Families don’t know whether or not to put down roots.

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.

 

 

 

* Here’s an excerpt from the letter I wrote to our Parish Council when our PLC tentatively canceled our Religious Ed program in order to collaborate with our cohort parish:

 “Five of my six children have participated in the Religious Ed program over that past seven years, and I also have volunteered as an adult catechist. Over the course of that time, the program has changed in small ways, but I believe it was at its best in the years when dinner was served, followed by catechesis for the whole family, followed by liturgical prayer.

When offered on Wednesday nights, being able to share a meal with our fellow parishioners and learn about our faith, was a spiritual oasis in the middle of a busy, and often very worldly week. My children looked forward to Wednesday nights because they felt welcomed into the life of the parish by having fellowship with their classmates, and sitting down to a meal as a Parish family. They regularly called their friends before Church to encourage them to attend. Often, children whose parents chose not to attend would find a place with my children and me, and it was a blessing.

I’ve been discouraged with recent cuts made to the religious ed program. Of course, Linda built the program from the ground up, putting forth a great effort to round up students, catechists, and volunteers each year. Did we always respond with joy? Not at first. But we were always glad we did. With the news that Linda’s position has been phased out, I’m compelled to note that her efforts on behalf of our children have been appreciated in ways she cannot know, and that her absence from parish life will be a tremendous and sorrowful loss.

That sense of loss has been compounded with the news that my children are gradually losing the place they consider a spiritual home.

The Church is in crisis, it’s clear. We need more priests and religious so that Churches like ours can continue to operate. I believe that human relationships within the Body of Christ are so important in kindling a child’s faith in this unsympathetic culture. We cannot continue to drain our Parish of its lifeblood, the personnel and the people who have maintained a vital livelihood for hundreds of years in this place. We will no longer be a Parish, but rather, an archive. And whatever seeds have been planted in our children’s hearts–potential vocations or ministries in the church–will suffer this uprooting and displacement.

I therefore implore those who have the ability to make these decisions–let’s not resemble the transience and shallow sowing that is the world’s trademark.”

 

 

**Special note to PLC’s: please take a pulse before commencing to operate.

***Also, I know an excellent DRE who is looking for a job.

About Elizabeth Duffy

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