Time to Get Over the 60's Print
Written by Sherry   
Friday, 27 July 2007 07:08
There is a brutal essay by Damian Thompson in the London Telegraph this morning about the announcement by the Bishop of Lancaster that he is planning to close down dozens of parishes, including their great showplace, St Walburge’s, which was built after Catholic Emanicipation in the mid 19th century and is the tallest spired parish church in England.



The statistics that the Bishop released to support his decision are startling.

"The latest figures released by the diocese show that the number of worshippers has dropped from 17,023 in 1974 to 6,427 in 2004." (That's a 2/3 drop in 30 years)

"By 2020 it is estimated that there will be 4,500 faithful Catholics in Lancaster." (To put this in perspective, the average parish in California has 10,000 parishioners! It would be unthinkable to have a diocese of only 6,427 people in the US.)

"The review claims that by 2020 the diocese will have 10 priests under the age of 65. At present there 110 Lancaster priests, only 30 of whom are under 65. According to the proposals, the number of parishes in Fylde, which includes the seaside town of Blackpool, would be cut from 27 to 13 by 2020. In Preston, meanwhile, 25 parishes would be clustered into 12. Ten of the city’s 24 churches are to be closed."

Consolidation is a story that I'm hearing all over the US. While the numbers of Catholics in the US continues to grow (due to immigration and to the highest level of conversion in the west) and we currently enjoy a level of Mass attendance which is unmatched in the western world outside of Poland and perhaps Ireland (although attendance is dropping there like a stone), we don't have the priests to deal with it.

In the past two months, I've heard the details of consolidation plans of various mid-western dioceses. One with 271 parishes is making plans to reduce to 76 "pastorates" of 2 - 12 communities which will be overseen by a single circuit riding priest.


Thompson's verdict:

I know I can bore for Britain on this subject, but how much proof does the Pope need that most English bishops couldn’t run a corner shop, let alone a diocese?

St Walburge’s congregation has shrunk to 100 a week. That number will halve in 10 years’ time, says the diocese. Really? And whose fault will that be?

The bishops, with their dreary Leftist mindset, think in terms of managing decline. They are unaware of a huge body of academic research showing that, if you provide charismatic pastors and high-quality services, PEOPLE WILL COME BACK TO CHURCH.

Happy-clappy religion sets my teeth on edge, but you have to hand it to evangelical Anglicans: when they see an empty church they don’t lock the doors and trudge off to look for more modest premises; they start making plans to fill it again. And they do so by recruiting lively, talented and pushy people who aren’t afraid to take risks.


Note the assumption: that to be evangelistically proactive and creative is to be "evangelical". It's smart and its effective and we're not - but it isn't Catholic. It is being forced by circumstance to adopt an attitude and methology that is intrinsically "foreign".

One of the fascinating things about the "Generation of Saints" in France that I've written about here , here and here is how free they felt to be evangelically and pastoral innovative without any fear of being less than Catholic.

When St. Francis de Sales set out on foot to personally re-evangelize an area of France in which all the Catholic churches had been padlocked for 60 years, it was unheard of because the working assumption then was that the religion of the ruler must be the religion of the people - but no one accused him of adapting "Protestant" methodology. When St. Vincent de Paul sent his priests to put on great missions in areas of rural France that had, in the opinion of many historians, never been evangelized before, no one regarded it as an "evangelical".

That's because Protestants weren't doing that sort of evangelism yet. The sort of agressive missionary and evangelistic efforts that we now associate with the evangelical world didn't begin until much later - the last 18th and early 19th centuries. It was Catholics who were the great evangelizers and missionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries. The letters of St. Francis Xavier from Asia and the Recollections of the Jesuit missionaries in early America were read widely by devout Catholics and set their hearts afire with missionary zeal.

There are pros and cons to the current "ecclesiology of identity" that so emphasizes Catholic distinctives in contradiction to the practices of other Christians. But one problem is that our sense of what is uniquely Catholic is so parochial. What we mean by "Catholic" is defined by what passed for normative Catholicism and Protestantism in the mid-20th century in the US. And a central part of our self-definition is negative: we are "not Protestant"

But we have fallen into the trap of defining ourselves against a movement (evangelicalism)that is only 60 years old. In so doing, we have jettisoned centuries of evangelical and apostolic practice and wisdom by great saints and doctors of the Church that is just as much a part of our heritage as the liturgy.

It is so time we got over the 60's. The battles of that era looms so large that we still can't see anything else. It is here that we can really benefit from the wisdom of the "generation of saints" who had lived through a much more dire upheaval - decades of religious civil war. They were a post-conciliar generation just like us but they lived amid a level of clerical corruption, indifference, and careerism that we can hardly imagine. (Vincent de Paul was ordained a priest at 20. It was the traditional path to financial security and responsibility for a peasant boy and his family. His conversion came after ordination.)

But this remarkable group of friends were possessed of an abiding faith in what the Holy Spirit had revealed through the Council and they had no qualms at all about being innovative in the implementation of that revelation. We'd do very well indeed to model our own response to the challenges of our day after their spirit of faith, hope, and love.