I recently watched a short clip of the demolition of the bell tower of St. Nicholas Church in Ohio. In a short moment, the large excavator pushed on the corner and the edifice collapsed in a pile of rubble and dust. Already stripped of its stained glass and crucifix, the church, until the moment it fell, still maintained a nobleness, as though it knew it was both the product and the representation of Faith for thousands of parishioners and strangers over the decades.
I was struck as well, though, by how its story serves as an analogy for the rise and demise of the faith of a whole community. It wasn’t just a church that was destroyed that day, it was the final stroke in the destruction of a parish that had been ongoing for decades. The bricks of the church building were important not only because they were consecrated as a place of worship and housed the Real Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ but because they represented the “living stones” of the faithful who gathered there and worshipped there; who were baptized there and buried from there. It prompted me to make a plea—a plea for the humble building blocks of our dioceses—a plea for our parishes.
We are followers of the incarnate God. The Logos made flesh. Our whole faith is a wonderful intermingling of the physical and the spiritual. Water is poured on our heads to wash us from sin; the hands of a priest are smeared with oil to sanctify them; we consume the flesh and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ by receiving Him into our mouths. The Church has long held that lex orandi, lex credendi, or the way we worship, is the way we believe. What we do physically matters. We are not just a body nor just a soul but body and soul in radical unity. And that is why the parish is so important.
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For most of us Catholics in America, the parish is the church is the Church. Our church buildings are consecrated out of the life of a parish family as its home. If you ask me what parish I belong to, I would answer, “Holy Angels.” What church do I go to? “Holy Angels.”
In the 1850s, the anti-Catholic group the Know-Nothings blew up our church with a barrel of gunpowder. Obviously, they didn’t destroy the parish, which promptly rebuilt the church. The parish rebuilt the church. In a real way, the Church of the Holy Angels is the physical presence of Holy Angels parish in the great town of Sidney, Ohio. It was not unimportant. What the Know-Nothings missed, though, was that although they could destroy the body of the church building, they could not destroy its soul—the parish.
If you will permit this analogy to be drawn out, that soul of the Church in a particular place, that parish, is what lasts and lasts and lasts. The Church’s law code even recognizes it as a “juridic person” which exists in perpetuity. If we, as people, wish to live and thrive, we must eat and drink, treat diseases, and maintain our health. On a more profound level, our souls, too, must be nourished, protected from sin and evil, sometimes healed from sin and evil, and nurtured if we wish them to live and thrive. So, too, with a parish.
The spiritual life of the ordinary Catholic in America is fed by the ordinary Catholic parish in America. What nourishes the life of that parish? It is nourished by the parishioners who provide for its physical needs but also enliven it with their prayer, life of Sacraments, and fellowship. It is nourished by ladies altar sodalities, and Knights of Columbus, and early morning Mass servers.
It finds its incarnation in the church building in which it lives and in the lives of the little old ladies who pray their Rosaries therein. It is also given to the charge of a pastor who is tasked with providing for its needs and ensuring its life. On an even grander scale, it is overseen by a bishop as its ultimate pastor to watch over it and connect it to the larger life of the Church, of which it is a small but important part.
It seems in recent days the parish has been neglected, forgotten, trivialized. There is probably blame to go around. In urban and suburban parishes, there is the temptation to become nomadic Catholics, wandering in search of a convenient Mass time or a more reverent priest. Sometimes this is necessary for the preservation of our souls or those of our children, but what should have been our home, our parish, is always harmed. It seems in recent days the parish has been neglected, forgotten, trivialized. There is probably blame to go around. Tweet This
Perhaps it is that the spirit of the age prevails and the Knights of Columbus become relevant only for the fish they feed us in Lent. And the ladies sodality fails because scheduling flowers to be delivered by the flower shop is more efficient anyway. And the person who gave the workshop to our CCD teachers said altars weren’t really supposed to be called that anymore after Vatican II. They were really more tables than altars.
Perhaps our Sunday forays into church (and so into the Church) became more about fellowship than worship, and our children thought the most important part of preparation for First Holy Communion was the felt banner they made for the end of their pew. And perhaps that was because we failed to live our faith and so it faded. And the parish, its metaphor in the world, also faded.
But maybe, just maybe, these humble purveyors of faith through generations, these parishes, are neglected by the Church herself. At least by its structures and institutions. Maybe by its leaders too. As the Faith was being undermined by the world and money got tight, parish schools disappeared, closed to save money. After all, we could have CCD still, and the kids didn’t like the uniforms anyway. And so the importance of the parish in the lives of the children was diminished. So, too, was the Faith it represented.
And then there were priest shortages. What solution could there be? In most cases, even where efforts were made to reinvigorate the seminaries (also known as “get rid of heretics and moral abhorrence”) and slowly more men began to answer the call, the solution has become parish closures and mergers. Under titles such as “On Mission for the Church Alive” (Pittsburgh) or “All Things New” (St. Louis) or “Beacons of Light” (Cincinnati), bishops and consulting firms have become convinced that the way to save their dioceses is to have fewer parishes. After all, then priests won’t be so overworked. And it will save money.
And so parishioners have been told the parish you belong to isn’t really important. The family you were born into, celebrated life with, and who should be with you as you die and your body is buried awaiting the Resurrection of the Dead, isn’t really that important. It has been reorganized. But don’t worry, we have data to back it up. And besides, your church will still be open so you can have your funeral there.
I don’t think they get it. But the people do. They heard “your parish isn’t really that important” and took it to heart. They stopped coming. Why get out of bed for something that isn’t that important? Why sacrifice money for something not that important? Why join the Ladies Altar Sodality of a random grouping of people cobbled together by a consulting firm in Minnesota?
They didn’t understand. Just like my kids wouldn’t understand if I made them start coming home from school to a house that wasn’t our home, shared with other families; or waking up in the morning with strangers so that my life would be easier and I could save some money. They wouldn’t care if it might someday help them recognize their connection to the larger human family. What would be destroyed—our life together as a family and our home as a sanctuary for their nurturing—is far too precious and would far outweigh whatever positives I could scrape together to sell them on the idea.
And so I plead: save our parishes. Our parishes are the homes that people come back to after years of wandering lost in the wilderness. They are the homes that our children return to even if only because they got hungry and had dirty laundry from being at college. They are the homes where our children will be nurtured by the Holy Spirit through the Church. Make the effort to reinvigorate and reestablish our parishes instead of merging them and treating them as if they are extensions of a diocesan conglomerate instead of the homes of faith. If the pastors stop treating our parishes as trivial and expendable, maybe, just maybe, the faithful will follow their example.
The Church in America might be sick and weak. We might include many who are lost and wandering. We might be lacking in fervor and devotion, swept along by the age-old sins of envy, lust, and greed. Maybe this is reflected in the life of our parishes. Our Sunday Masses might not be at capacity. Our collection baskets might not be full to overflowing. What we need now, more than ever, is the Church not retreating away from neighborhoods and communities but moving into them. We need parishes. We need them to hold the line, to keep the faith.
We need pastors willing to do the impossible to make that happen—not for some sentimental nostalgia, but for our souls. For the souls of those for whom the only witness of Christ they will encounter in their cocoon of modernism is the steeple that rises above our homes, our fields, and our farms: that still, in spite of the cynicism and materialism of the world, points to the heavens as a sign of contradiction. Whose bells still ring the Angelus, beckoning a world deafened by noise.
In the experience of my very medium-length life: where parishes matter, the Church matters; and where the Church matters, Christ matters. There is plenty of work for us all to do, but like Saturday morning chores at our house, it usually takes dad to get things rolling. Pastors, if you do not abandon your parishes, if you stand by them and take a stand for them, they will come to stand by you. Together, we can fight for the Kingdom of God and maybe start to rebuild the bell towers again.
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