The Archdiocese of Detroit, where I live, has embarked on an ambitious program called “Together in Faith” which will result in the closing, merging or clustering of many of its parishes—especially those in the central city, where a changing demographic means that pews are near empty on Sunday mornings.
These are hard times for the Catholic Church in America! Officials in Milwaukee cite three principal factors which will necessitate widespread belt-tightening and reduction in the total number of parishes:
- Priest retirements will exceed ordinations, resulting in a projected 40 percent reduction in the number of priests serving in parish ministry.
- The costs of operating parishes and funding ministries are escalating rapidly, and parishes can gain economies of scale by collaborating with other parishes.
- The mission of the Church can be carried out more effectively by combining efforts and sharing resources.
But lest we throw up our hands, fearing that the Catholic Church’s influence is waning in America, I thought I’d cite Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). In his 2009 book Faith and the Future, he first offers an ominous warning:
“The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.
She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes…she will lose many of her social privileges…. As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….
It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek…. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution—when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain….
So then, should we be discouraged? Pope Benedict doesn’t think so:
…But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”
- Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), from his book Faith and the Future