One constant refrain throughout the pontificate of Pope Francis has been to go to the peripheries.
The church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all misery.
To that, I think many can add “Amen!” But…what, or where, counts as a periphery? I propose to answer by looking at one small part of the U.S.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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It is true, Holy Father, that I am a citizen of a rich nation and reside in a wealthy state. But where I live is poor in many ways according to official government census data. A recent headline about the county where I was born and live reads: “County in northern New York ranked with one of the state’s highest poverty rates.” According to the data, almost 16 percent of our families are impoverished, and large numbers of children here live in financial and material need. Why?
According to John Bernardi, president of the charity organization United Way, “rural areas, like the North Country specifically, face poverty at higher rates than suburban areas due to a number of challenges: transportation, an availability of resources, and proximity of good paying jobs, among other reasons.” Does that qualify us as a periphery? What about the fact that in just ten years our population of fifty-one thousand declined to forty-seven thousand?
Beyond those statistics, I can see how life here has changed in sixty-one years. As I was writing this, a new headline from where I lived popped up, signaling how debased the culture has become: “3 Malone residents charged with kidnapping for allegedly beating and dumping teen on road.” The details are horrifying. The sixteen-year-old victim was “allegedly attacked and beaten by three people over the course of 12 hours” and then dropped off out in the country. Nothing like that has ever been reported here before.
You decry existential problems such as “the mystery of sin.” In my lifetime, I have seen fewer and fewer restraints on sin in my beloved geographically-peripheral home. When I was a youth, if a young unmarried woman became pregnant, it was considered a transgression and no cause for celebration. Today, it is common for men and women to live unmarried together and have children with little or no stigma. Birth announcements (especially for unwed parents) far outnumber wedding announcements in our local newspapers. The number of obituaries far surpasses both. I am fortunate to live in a village neighborhood with families and young children, but the voices of the young are fading from our homes and schools and churches.
Holy Father, you rightly identify the “existential peripher[y]…of pain” as needing attention. So many here are in pain of different sorts. This past year, two of my classmates died from alcohol abuse. People younger than me are dying of drug abuse or even suicide.
You bring up “injustice…intellectual currents…all misery.” My ancestors came here from Canada and New England and were farmers and craftsmen. They took pride in their well-ordered homes and in working hard. Today, that work ethic is mostly gone and good employees are hard to find. Families are smaller, and farming is now done on a mammoth scale.
I see unprecedented amounts of litter on our streets and roads and widespread disregard for the environment. The “common home” you tout, Pope Francis, has become common by seemingly being no one’s responsibility. The beauty of the earth here on the periphery is devalued. Young people are eager to leave and take their talents elsewhere. None of my close friends from childhood have stayed here—they are dispersed to places like California and Texas, taking their skills and dreams with them, never to return.
So, what is the Church doing here on the periphery? Closing and consolidating parishes and schools. My wife and I returned here five and a half years ago after living for a number of years on the West Coast. Since 2017, the local Catholic school closed for lack of students; and two of the local church buildings were closed. One was sold to a Protestant group, and the other is still on the market. The churchgoing population is in demographic free fall, and most of the congregations are at or above retirement age. Our local priests are also mostly older—a priest is considered “young” if he is in his forties. The religious sisters who used to run the schools are gone.
The only places where large families are seen any more are at the two locations offering Latin Mass—in the next county over. One is part of the diocese, the other is run by the SSPX. (And we appreciate your granting faculties to them, Holy Father.) We have some priests from other countries: Haiti, Nigeria, the Philippines. They do admirable work in a sometimes-cold land far from their home and family. According to the most recent fundraising letter from our bishop, last year one priest was ordained along with thirteen deacons; nine seminarians are still studying. But the rate of retirement and death may outpace that.
Holy Father, there are now two or three generations of people my age and younger who have little or no exposure to the teachings of the Faith. They may get miniscule amounts as they witness the sacraments of baptism and marriage or attend funerals, but regular Mass attendance and prayer, as well as nourishing faith practices like the Rosary, are foreign to them.
My own first cousins were raised Catholic, but none went on practicing the Faith upon reaching adulthood. Thankfully, my cousin Randy, who was in his fifties, was able to receive the sacrament of Extreme Unction before his death earlier this year from cancer. However, none of his four siblings or their children practice the Faith. Who will pray for the sick, the dying, and the dead? Who will serve as godparents? Where will the next generation of priests and religious come from?
One bright spot is that there is a Catholic school for girls in the area, just across the county line. The girls are taught by traditional Dominican nuns. We were worried about those consecrated religious being out for a recent fundraiser, thinking they might receive abuse; on the contrary, local people seemed overjoyed to see habited nuns.
Holy Father, this periphery hungers and thirsts for God and His visible servants. We can hear bromides and trivialities anywhere, but the people want truth. They want certainty. They want to know the rich leaders have not forgotten them. They want to know that their children and grandchildren can choose to stay here and not become internal refugees forced to live elsewhere. They want to know that Catholicism will survive in the decades ahead, providing the sacraments and a message of hope, binding communities together as in the past.
Pope Francis, some say you do not understand the United States and are even hostile toward us. Please know that this country is a tapestry with concentrations of wealth but many areas of poverty. But whatever you have been told, we, too, have our peripheries; and we, too, need the light of Christ. Hear our plea.