Recently the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) consecrated a new church in the small town of St. Mary’s, Kansas. At first glance, this seems to be non-news. However, consider that the consecration was attended by more than 3,000 people (the town’s entire population is less than that!); the church is now the SSPX’s largest church in America; the new church is a sign of the SSPX’s growth in recent years; and many Catholic dioceses are in the midst of closing churches. That makes it newsworthy.
This contrast—the SSPX growing and building churches while Catholic dioceses close churches—should raise questions in the minds of Catholic leaders, especially our bishops: Why is there a contrast in the first place? What is attractive about the SSPX? Why is it growing in this country while ordinary Catholic parishes are declining?
Sadly, it appears that our bishops are not asking these questions; in fact, they seem wholly incurious, even at times antagonistic, about this juxtaposition.
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For our purposes here, let’s ignore the SSPX’s irregular canonical status. That’s irrelevant to the point I’m trying to make. What matters is why they are attracting people when most Catholic parishes are repelling them. Bishops should not have their collective heads in the sand and refuse to see beyond their canonical borders for examples of success in promoting religion.
In fact, bishops should be looking at any and all religious bodies that are attracting new members and explore what makes them attractive, whether they be canonically-regular traditional Latin Mass (TLM) parishes, charismatic Catholic parishes, evangelical Protestant churches, or even non-Christian religious bodies that are successful. Bishops should be looking at any and all religious bodies that are attracting new members and explore what makes them attractive.Tweet This
At a time when religious practice is rapidly declining in this country, a rapidly-growing subset of the Faith—of any faith actually—is an anomaly that should interest any religious leader. Instead of being too busy defending the status quo and managing the Church’s decline, bishops need to explore deeply what religious practices are attractive to modern man.
The point here isn’t that Catholic parishes should simply ape other bodies that are successful. There are traits and practices that are better avoided, even if they result in growth. For example, if it were found that almost everyone attending SSPX parishes is there simply because it is “outside” the canonical boundaries of the Church—i.e., they are attracted to its “rogue” status—then that would not be something to emulate.
Likewise, if a Protestant mega-church’s success is based on emotionalism or loose moral strictures, then that isn’t something for Catholic parishes to embrace. Man is fallen, and due to concupiscence is often attracted to things that are actually harmful.
That being said, man is also attracted to truth, beauty, and goodness, and so if there are elements of those realities that attract people to these growing parishes and religious bodies, then Catholic leaders should take note.
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Almost two years ago we did a survey of TLM-celebrating parishes (it was conducted right before Traditionis Custodes was released) and we found dramatic attendance growth at these Masses over the previous two years, at a time when attendance at regular Catholic parishes was significantly declining. Why? Are any bishops or chancery officials asking this question? Are they conducting studies to find out?
It’s not just the TLM. Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina is, on the surface, just a regular Novus Ordo-celebrating diocesan parish in a medium-sized town in the South. Sounds ordinary, right? Yet Catholic families are moving from across the country to be part of that parish (and its school). Why? Isn’t this something that someone on the USCCB Committee on Evangelization might want to ask its pastor?
Now the Catholic nattering nabobs of negativism will be all too quick to dismiss these examples. “They are just pulling people from other Novus Ordo parishes! It’s not real growth!” First, I doubt if such critics have actually looked into the numbers to see if that’s true. But even if it is—so what? Shouldn’t that lead Catholic leaders to ask why Catholics are willing to leave their local parish behind to attend another, one that may be much farther away and involves more sacrifice to attend?
What our bishops need to do is find out what exactly these more successful religious groups are doing right. Is it greater reverence? A stronger call to a more disciplined lifestyle? A deeper focus on the person of Jesus Christ? A higher moral code? These are things that every Catholic parish should be embracing, so if they are not, bishops should be the first to urge their priests to do so.
The sad reality is that religious practice is quickly disappearing in this country. It’s unlikely the bishops can do anything to reverse that trend—they might only be able to slow it down a bit. But each statistic represents souls who need Christ, and so bishops fail in their primary task as shepherds if they do not work to attract those statistics—those souls—back to the flock.
Bishops should not seek growth for growth’s sake, but if souls are being lost because the bishops are incurious about ways to legitimately attract them, then they need to repent of their indifference and learn from those who are doing what works, no matter who they may be.
[Photo: The Immaculata Church in St. Mary’s, Kansas]