As was promised for the past year and a half, the Archdiocese of St. Louis, on Pentecost weekend, announced sweeping changes that will greatly reduce the number of parishes through suppression and mergers. This is being done under the optimistic marketing slogan “All Things New.”
Surprisingly, the changes were tame compared to what was initially expected. Back in December, I wrote about the expected changes. At that time, the expectation was that the archdiocese would shrink to between 70 and 90 parishes. However, when all was said and done, many were spared, and the archdiocese is reducing from 178 parishes down to 134.
The archdiocese won’t speak of parish “closures” per se; 35 will be “subsumed,” or merged into another, and 15 existing parishes are being merged into five new ones. Canon law is very complicated on this, and opponents are working on an appeal.
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These mergers will be difficult. Some may be called for, but one can easily see why they leave a bad taste in the mouth. For example, those in the archdiocese with a devotion to the Traditional Latin Mass have been seeing opportunities shrink. Now public Masses according the missals before Vatican II are confined to a diocesan oratory and one hosted by the Institute of Christ the King, not to mention a chapel in St. Louis operated by the Society of St. Pius X.
None of these are convenient to those in the growing St. Charles County area west of the Missouri River, where there will be no publicly available Latin Masses. The 200+ families in that county who attended the older rite now need to drive 30 miles east for it. Thankfully, the archdiocesan oratory is gaining an excellent second priest and, it appears, more control over its property. In other areas, parishes with vastly different cultures will now find themselves forced together. The archdiocese tries to paint a rosy picture, but there will be debates and departures.
While most of the noise about the changes over the past several months had to do with this and the threat of vastly more church closures, another part of the Pentecost announcement may reverberate even further: the announced reassignment of 155 diocesan priests—about 80 percent of the total.
Catholics throughout the world have come to expect their priests to be moved on a regular basis, with many changes announced in line with ordinations around the season of Pentecost. While pastors have a certain stability—usually serving six-year-terms—associate pastors can be moved every three years or so; sooner if necessary.
In St. Louis, the 2022 moves were delayed to coincide with this announcement, which could only be expected to drive the number of moves up. Even taking this into account, such a high number is cause for reflection, as it is more than triple what was seen in 2021 and 2020.
When a priest dies or retires, the obituary will usually list all his many parish assignments. A few years ago, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, wrote of the need for priests to be open to moving around, with a sense of missionary zeal: “We are not to get too comfortable or too complacent in any one place, knowing that we must be ready to go where we are most needed at any given time.” This is true, as is the admonition for priests to not form deep personal attachments to their flock. But it does not always serve the parish well.
It is remarkable how much neighboring parishes can differ, even those in strikingly similar demographic circumstances, and how much a parish can itself change over a period of time, whether for the better or for the worse. A lot of this is because of the pastor and the other priests, who set the tone for the parish.
Assigning a progressive pastor to a more traditional parish will, over time, alter the culture of the community as new people or groups in the parish come to ascendancy. Parish music directors or directors of religious education may grow frustrated with a new pastor and move on, to be replaced by someone more amenable to the new pastor’s vision, for example. Assigning a progressive pastor to a more traditional parish will, over time, alter the culture of the community as new people or groups in the parish come to ascendancy.Tweet This
Left unsaid in all the reassignments is how a bishop and his deans or vicars score the priests; why exactly is one priest better suited for St. Turgidious than for, say, St. Euphorius, just a few blocks away? The boilerplate phrasing used is bland: “In order to best provide for the needs of our local Church,” or some such language, without further explanation. When Fr. Oldguy is taken away from my parish, how exactly is it better served? Are we going to get better pastoral service from Fr. Newguy? What makes him, in particular, better for our particular parish and Fr. Oldguy not as good?
Meanwhile in the pews, parishioners are expected to stay loyal to the shifting winds. There was a time when the expectation was that they would remain in their territorial parishes, but that has changed. In some parts of the archdiocese, the majority of Catholics do not attend their territorial parish but find their needs met elsewhere; some move around depending on how their parish changes over time.
The question many will be facing in St. Louis in the months ahead is one that must be answered: How is our parish supposed to be a stable spiritual home if those who lead it keep changing?