The Times gets key details right in Philly pain

And now for something completely different.

You may need to sit down. It’s time for GetReligion to offer a positive (for the most part) take on a New York Times report about Catholicism and, in particular, the troubled Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

It helps that, in this case, the story does not focus on one of those doctrinal, cultural stories on which the urbane, sophisticated Times has shed all pretense of doing balanced, fair coverage (if the journalism gospel according to Bill Keller remains the norm in the world’s most powerful newsroom). This story is, for the most part, about financial hard times in the city’s Catholic pews and schools. Here’s the top of the report:

PHILADELPHIA – “It’s been a rough week” is how the Rev. Charles Zlock, pastor of the St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, started his 10 a.m. homily on Sunday.

It seemed like an obvious reference to the searing trial that ended Friday with the conviction of a senior Philadelphia archdiocese official, Msgr. William J. Lynn, on a charge of endangering children by placing a known pedophile in an unwary parish.

But the 120 worshipers attending St. Mary’s on Sunday, though upset by the case, were mostly heartsick for a different reason: After final services next Sunday, this handsome church in northwest Philadelphia, a center of life for nearby residents since 1849, is scheduled to close. For the unsettled Roman Catholics in this 1.5 million-member archdiocese, the closing is one more blow in sweeping and bitterly contested cutbacks. Across the city, thousands are already incensed because church leaders have closed 27 cherished schools.

So the archdiocese is having to pull the plug on quite a few parishes and schools. Something tells me that these moves are, in part, linked to familiar demographic issues — think birth rates and Mass attendance — that are missing from way too much of the mainstream media’s coverage of Catholic life. The bottom line: Few Catholic schools close when they are packed with Catholic children and fueled by the support — dollars and volunteer hours — of growing or healthy parishes.

Alas, Philadelphia is the kind of place where many Catholics are proud of their past glories, while rather blind to their present realities. The Times states this rather clearly:

Faced with an unheard-of $17 million deficit this year — worsened by millions of dollars in legal fees — Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who arrived in September, announced last week that he was closing the youth office, shutting down the nationally known monthly newspaper and laying off 45 archdiocese employees. He has put the archbishop’s 13,000-square-foot mansion up for sale. …

Philadelphia’s elaborate network of parishes and parochial schools was developed more than a century ago, after the settlement of European ethnic groups that have long since dispersed. For too long, officials here avoided making unpopular decisions, said Rocco Palmo, an expert on the Catholic Church and writer of the blog Whispers in the Loggia.

Parishioners were never told that the church was sinking in the red, Mr. Palmo added, and this year’s announced cuts, which will be far from the last, took many by surprise. “Chaput has taken on the toughest job any bishop in the United States has faced in at least 50 years,” said Mr. Palmo, who has been appointed by the archbishop to an advisory council, praising him for changing the culture of what had been an insular and often imperious clergy.

Note the gesture of the new archbishop selling his own mansion and trying to cut the central office, at the same time that he has to close historic, urban, often weakened, parishes. I found it poignant that, in one parish visited by the Times, some of the faithful mourning the decision to close these particular church doors were, in fact, suburbanites who returned, one last time, to a parish they no longer attended.

Most of all, I appreciated the balanced words of Father Charles Zlock, the pastor of one of the churches that is about to close. He underlined the pain, but noted that these decisions were a long time coming. This is the Times story, condensed.

Father Zlock said he was exhausted after being “screamed at” over the last year and a half by parishioners who were worried about their children and the loss of churches and schools. The Philadelphia officials and priests, he said, had become “arrogant and complacent” over the years, contributing to the crises today.

But like many others, he praised Archbishop Chaput for tackling unpopular issues head-on. “Chaput has put a steamroller in place and said we’re going to fix this thing,” he said. “Two years from now we’re going to be a smaller, leaner church. … But the people who will be here will be spiritually vibrant and engaged.”

What would a smaller, more vibrant church look like?

While Chaput, once again, declined an Times interview request, the team that produced this story dug a very relevant quote out of a recent speech by the outspoken Franciscan. In it, he offered a statistical marker by which to judge the future health of this powerful, but weakened, archdiocese:

Archbishop Chaput declined to be interviewed, but in a speech last week he called for a zealous new missionary movement in Philadelphia. He lamented that only 18 percent of registered Catholics here attended Mass weekly, compared with 40 percent in Denver.

For what it’s worth, this Times report also caught the attention of my friend Rod “Crunchy Cons” Dreher, who recently moved from Philadelphia back to southern Louisiana. He was pretty plugged into Catholic networks during the time he was in Philly and offered this reflection about the views of his Catholic friends there:

They are hurting like everybody else is, but they believe that with Chaput’s arrival, the hard decisions that ought to have been made a long time ago are finally being made, and a corner has been turned. I remember when I first arrived in Philly, back in 2010, having a conversation with a very well-informed and committed Catholic, who was quite melancholy about the situation in the archdiocese. He told me that most of his fellow Catholics there had no real idea how perilous the situation for the RC church there was. He wasn’t talking at all about the abuse scandal. He was talking rather about the complacency and the belief that all those buildings, and all that history, would protect the archdiocese from decay.

He told me that he seriously wondered if there would be much of a church in Philly for his children to inherit when they were grown. My friend is neither a conservative nor a gloom-and-doomer. What he saw back then is now becoming more widely known. Again, my Catholic friends there say it’s better to acknowledge the painful truth and to deal with the world as it really is than with pious illusions. They’re right.

Not a happy story. But it is a real story in which hard questions had to be faced head on.

Photo: Mass in the Philadelphia cathedral.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jill

    Maybe there are some downsides to this case, but overall Justice is finally prevailing. Fixing the abuse scandals is a positive result. That is happy story. Not without some pain, but that’s has been long overdue.

    Sure, all of PA is waking up this morning to realize some of its major institutions being caught covering up pediaphiles. Sometimes the only way to get some people’s attention is to hit them where it hurts, in this case their pocket books. So be it if that’s what it takes to get some to step up and do the right thing.

  • http://NA Thomas Hendricks

    One of the unfortunate truths many people hate to face is that eventually you have to pay off the credit card. If income doesn’t match outgo, something has to be cut back.

  • dalea

    This leaped out at me:

    Parishioners were never told that the church was sinking in the red, Mr. Palmo added, and this year’s announced cuts, which will be far from the last, took many by surprise.

    It would be helpful to know why the parishioners were not told. And who made that decision and why did they make it. But that would move this from a human interest story to a financial or business story. Which I suspect is what this subject calls out for.

    How does the church decide which churches to close and which to keep open? What are the economics of continuing to run a parish? How much income is needed to keep a parish open? Have there been appeals for this income? What happens to the closed churches: are they torn down or sold to other denominations? And how are the furnishings disposed of: do they go to other parishes or are they sold?

    I have been following similar stories in a small town Midwestern paper about the closing of rural Catholic parishes. A group of four churches each in a town of less than 400 people are being consolidated into one parish. Which has produced a battle royal and great anguish. In one, parishioners are trying to purchase the church for a community center, complete with threats of law suits. And charges are flying that the closed parishes are usually those with Eastern European roots.

    It would be interesting to see a story that looks at this as a national phenomenon.

  • dalea

    Simple Google search reveals a lot of these stories. One on Cleveland’s closures focuses on the art and architecture as well as the ethnic backgrounds: finds a lot of Eastern European churches being closed:

    In Detroit, the bishop has made each parish’s finances public and given each parish 18 months to come up with a workable plan to save itself. He also is allowing merged parishes to keep each church building open, so that a merged parish will have serveral actual churches.

  • dalea
  • Suzanne

    I too find it surprising that parishioners weren’t told. Don’t they have a parish council that at least knows the basics of the budget?

  • Julia

    The parishioners weren’t told.

    Remember, Archbishop Chaput has been in Philadelphia for less than a year. He has taken on a truly thankless task. His style of lancing boils and facing facts is rather new to Philadelphia, and much needed.

  • Julia

    Many of the city parishes in urban areas were created at the insistence of different ethnic groups who each wanted their own churches. Polish parishes, Italian parishes, Irish parishes and even German parishes.

    The Irish parish in which I grew up had been through a horrible period when the German-speaking bishop appointed a German priest to the Irish parish. The men and boys of the parish guarded the church and rectory with rifles for a number of days to prevent the German priest from settling in. The parish was put under interdict by the bishop and the case went to Rome, which found in favor of the Irish parishioners. The pastor when I was there had been born in Ireland.

    Belleville, the home of the bishop’s seat was largely German-speaking until World War I. A small parish was erected only a few blocks from the cathedral – the church was built in English style and there was an understanding that German would never be spoken at this parish.

    The melting pot was not the pattern for the first few generations of immigrants. Now all these large and small parishes are surplus because the parishioners have moved to the suburbs and most don’t identify so closely with the home country any more.

    The country-side just doesn’t have enough people to support all those little parishes any more. They made sense before automobiles, but not any more.

    People knew this was coming. So it isn’t really relevant to say “nobody told them”; people had to know.

  • astorian

    Jill, you’re completely missing the point of this story: the Church in Philadelphia is NOT going broke because of sexual abuse scandals. The diocese of Philadelphia would be in great financial shape if their main expenses were legal fees and payoffs to victims of pedophile priests.

    Rather, the Church in Philadelphia, as in MANY large cities, is going broke because demographics have changed and the large ethnic Catholic congregations that USED to support urban parishes just don’t exist any more.

  • dalea

    One of the most poignant stories, which has disapeared online, concerned the preperations one small rural parish made for its closing. This was a very small town, under 400 residents, with a majority being Catholics. The parish had fixed up its church, expanded and remodled its parish hall, got out of debt and had both a surplus and a plan for the upkeep of the buildings. The idea was that the church would be for weddings and funerals and the parish hall would continue as a community center with fish frys etc. They were even willing to fund a not for profit to own the buildings so the diocese would not be liable. The bishop vetoed the plan.

    The anguish parishoners felt was really touching. They had been faithful Catholics their whole lives and were losing their parish. The new parish was 12 miles away over two lane country roads, a difficult drive in winter. Especially for older people who no longer drive and had to rely on help that was frequently not available. They felt the church had abandoned them, even with their efforts to adjust. The story also points out that the parishoners noticed that Methodists and Lutherans never closed down their rural churches except for financial reasons. Since the parish was financially viable, they were mystified and upset.

    Ethnic Catholic Churchhes are not just an urban phenomena. When I was young, there was a town of 4,000 with three Catholic Churches: Italian, Polish and Lithuanian. And one very small town with a Flemish Catholic Church. Ethnic churches are very common in the Upper Midwest.