Closing Churches Closes Faith

Architect Michael Tamara comments here on the closure of historic churches in the Northern cities of the US. His main point is that the churches were built by our ancestors who were much poorer than we are, but who had faith, knew how to work hard, and above all–were willing to make great sacrifices to build a worthy house of worship.

What kind of mindset built all the immigrant Catholic parishes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Americas? Was it a way of thinking predicated on practical limitations; on being “realistic” in the mundane sense of the word? This can hardly be so.

Something deeply potent—and even slightly irrational to the modern mind—had to have been the driving force behind the postponement of personal comfort and social success long enough to establish a parish and build a worthy church. Yet, the formula was simple enough: a solid reliance of the faithful, united with their shepherds, on their own gifts in cooperation with the providence of the Almighty. They simply believed, and their belief formed the very center of their being.

Tamara laments the rise of a utilitarian mentality in the church–in which business models are imposed and buildings are regarded merely as assets. One could add that this same mentality has led to the mediocrity and at times downright brutality of modern church architecture. The church is seen as no more than an auditorium and not only the clergy, but the people too have lost any sense of the need to construct a temple and are intent on building a preaching hall.

The common thread between both of the aforementioned departures from traditional Catholic thinking is the replacement of a spiritual battle mentality with a corporate management mentality. In short, the Church Militant has become a Church stagnant, whose focus has come to rest more on the concerns and comforts of this fleeting life than the union of the faithful across time in preparation for eternal realities. Given this, can there be much wonder as to why pews have emptied and churches have closed by the hundreds?

At the same time, though, the spirit of past generations has not been lost and has never died; it’s just been forgotten and suppressed by so many of its stewards and shepherds over the course of a half century or more. The more we talk about it nostalgically, as a thing confined to history, the more it will remain just that, and evermore distantly so with the progression of time. Yet, what if serious solutions were explored that might proactively neutralize and even begin to reverse this entrenched “going out of business” mentality, rather than reactively accommodating it in perpetuity?

Tamara begins to assess the problem, but in fact the practical problems are much more profound. Many of the inner city churches are dying because the vibrant ethnic community that supported the church is no longer there. Not only have the Germans, Poles, Italians and Irish moved out to the suburbs–they have also moved out of being German, Polish, Irish and Italian. They have become American and as they ceased to be German, Polish, Irish and Italian they also, too often, ceased to be Catholic.

The immigrant Catholics have adopted American religion of the suburbs–happily attending the feel good Protestant church, community church or no church at all–adopting instead the TV talk show form of easy self help spirituality which promises health, happiness and a decent income. Where they haven’t adopted these non-Catholic forms of religion they have turned Catholicism into those forms of humanistic religion.

Tamara is right that belief built the great churches, and belief is needed to restore them, but a more practical plan also needs to be put in place. While some of the big Northern churches are beautiful and worth saving–many are not. A good number are solid, ugly early twentieth century churches with no real architectural or historic merit. If their populations have dwindled and they buildings are crumbling then experts who value the great tradition should help the diocesan authorities make the call for them to be razed.

However, where there are beautiful churches worth saving let’s be creative. In Europe they hand them over to the care of the members of new ecclesial communities. Hand them over to people who want them: let them be given to a struggling parish of the Ordinariate, the FSSP or even (shock horror!) the SSPX. Build new ministries in the inner cities and let the old churches be lighthouses for the social work the church should be doing. Encourage that huge suburban church to take over one of the old churches, restore it and import the families to attend Mass there. With a bit of creativity and generosity of spirit something could be done.

But as Tamara says, real faith and enthusiasm are the qualities needed.

Read the whole article here.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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