St. Augustine’s in south Boston—a grand old church of Irish Beantown—will close in November under Boston’s parish consolidations. Its smaller counterpart, St. Monica’s, will remain open. The archdiocese’s logic makes sense: St. Augustine’s needed millions in maintenance and renovations, and it’s located in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where churches closed in earlier contractions have since been converted into funky condominiums. But yuppie encroachment, the abuse scandal’s tax on church finances, and suburban dispersal’s draw on parish rolls are not the only culprits. There are generally ignored, if surprising, third and fourth elements at work in the closing of parishes in American cities. A symptomatic case, the church is a victim of its history and of how some families today understand its role in their lives.
St. Augustine’s story is a familiar one. For more than a century, it provided an ordering presence for a tightknit community, as a parish ought to do. Now, on any given Sunday, it stands as an abandoned hulk. Last winter, with paltry collection plates and archdiocesan finances tied up elsewhere, a few Masses were held without heat or electricity. Shivering in the candlelit, echoing space, I wondered if this was 21st-century catacomb Catholicism in the American city. But before I could indulge in such romantic notions, the “local church” showed up, at least for one Sunday.
Shortly before the closure decision was issued, St. Augustine’s held a “unity Mass.” Everyone connected with this well-known parish was encouraged to make a show of its continued importance, and a combination of Sunday obligation, media attention, ethnic pride, and local politics overflowed the pews. But if the rousing, passionate speeches that followed Mass were any indication, the church’s purpose for the local laity is no longer to be the natural and prime bulwark of truth and unity. Now, it plays a supporting role: It is a Gothic adornment of cultural identity and family upkeep.
Amid much chest-thumping at an insensitive archdiocese and peat- rich folk tales of past parish glory, prominent speakers offered a subtly disordered, socially conservative defense of Church and family, or, more accurately, of family and Church. Congressman Stephen Lynch traced his genealogy back to the founding of the parish. St. Augustine’s future, according to his characteristic thinking, is important because St. Augustine’s past was. The church moves forward so that its old stock parishioners can continue gazing at its rich and receding past. The parish must live on, he and many others opined, because of the value it holds for area families. While this naturally sounds laudable, it isn’t necessarily so.
Religion performs a secondary function for many socially conservative, partially practicing Christians today. For them, family proudly comes first, and every other component of life is ordered to its improvement and enrichment. With the family as the ultimate end, the church is a valuable means—the pretext for get-togethers and, at sacramental intervals, the backdrop for celebrations. Correcting this gradual deformation of the church’s purpose will require the difficult task of reminding many that “the family” is the ultimate means of fulfilling God’s mission upon the earth, not vice-versa.
Faced with beloved parishes closing, Catholics can recommit themselves fully to parish life or they can indulge in a musty brew of family nostalgia and ethnic melodrama. To revitalize the Church in America, we must encourage the former and avoid the latter. Otherwise, we may be left only with a prayer to St. Monica for miraculous, rather than condominium, conversions.