Pope: Don’t be ‘anx­ious’ amid church clos­ings

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Religion - TERRY MAT­TINGLY Terry Mat­tingly is the ed­i­tor of GetReli­gion.org and Se­nior Fel­low for Me­dia and Re­li­gion at The King’s Col­lege in New York. He lives in Oak Ridge,Tenn.

It’s a statis­tic tourists in Rome of­ten hear while gaz­ing at cen­turies of glo­ri­ous ar­chi­tec­ture: The eter­nal city con­tains more than 900 churches.

Other statis­tics will af­fect those holy sites in the fu­ture.

For ex­am­ple, a record-low 458,151 births oc­curred last year in Italy. The fer­til­ity rate — cur­rently 1.32, far be­low a 2.1 re­place­ment rate — is ex­pected to de­cline again this year. Mean­while, the num­ber of mar­riages fell 6 per­cent be­tween 2016 and 2017, and re­li­gious mar­riages plunged 10.5 per­cent.

Thus, lots of Rome’s 900-plus churches will be empty in the next gen­er­a­tion or so.

“Cur­rently we are at a roughly ter­mi­nal stage. It would not be bad if the Church, the first to pay the price, would un­der­stand this and get mov­ing,” said de­mog­ra­pher Roberto Volpi, as quoted in the news­pa­per Il Foglio.

That was the con­text of re­marks by Pope Fran­cis dur­ing a re­cent Pon­tif­i­cal Coun­cil for Cul­ture con­fer­ence, a gath­er­ing with this sober­ing ti­tle: “Doesn’t God dwell here any­more? De­com­mis­sion­ing places of wor­ship and in­te­grated man­age­ment of ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal cul­tural her­itage.”

Fran­cis stressed: “The ob­ser­va­tion that many churches, which un­til a few years ago were nec­es­sary, are now no longer thus, due to a lack of faith­ful and clergy, or a dif­fer­ent dis­tri­bu­tion of the pop­u­la­tion be­tween cities and ru­ral ar­eas, should be wel­comed in the Church not with anx­i­ety, but as a sign of the times that in­vites us to re­flec­tion and re­quires us to adapt.”

The church has problems, but there are “vir­tu­ous” ways to deal with them, he said. Bish­ops in Europe, North Amer­ica and else­where are learn­ing to cope.

“De­com­mis­sion­ing must not be the first and only so­lu­tion … nor must it be car­ried out with the scan­dal of the faith­ful. Should it be­come nec­es­sary, it should be in­serted in the time of or­di­nary pas­toral plan­ning, be pre­ceded by ad­e­quate in­for­ma­tion and be a shared de­ci­sion” in­volv­ing civic and church lead­ers, he said.

Pope Fran­cis ap­pears to be ad­vis­ing Catholics not to worry too much as “For sale” or even “Prop­erty con­demned” signs ap­pear on lots of sanc­tu­ar­ies in some parts of the world, said Phil Lawler, a con­ser­va­tive jour­nal­ist with 35 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in dioce­san and in­de­pen­dent Catholic pub­li­ca­tions.

“The sen­tence that trig­gered me was when the pope said we shouldn’t be ‘anx­ious’ about all of this,” he said. “It’s like he’s say­ing, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not all that bad.’ … He says that at the same time that he says we’re go­ing to be closing lots of churches be­cause we don’t have enough Catholics to fill them and priests to serve in them. … That’s stun­ning, to me. When a con­gre­ga­tion gets smaller, that can change in a few years. When you close a church — it’s gone.”

It’s easy to fo­cus on dioce­san de­ci­sions about where churches close and where new fa­cil­i­ties are built. Con­cerned Catholics need to watch other trends, Lawler said.

Wed­dings and bap­tisms are cru­cial. Re­ports from Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Ap­plied Re­search in the Apos­to­late show there were 426,309 Catholic wed­dings in Amer­i­can churches in 1970, com­pared with 144,148 in 2017. There were nearly 1.1 mil­lion in­fant bap­tisms in 1970, but only 660,367 in 2017, while Amer­ica’s pop­u­la­tion soared. Weekly Mass at­ten­dance among Catholics fell from 48 per­cent to 23 per­cent dur­ing that same era.

Pew Fo­rum re­search in 2015 found that for ev­ery con­vert, the church loses more than six Catholics — the high­est exit rate of any Amer­i­can flock.

This is old news. “What mat­ters is how the church re­sponds,” Lawler said.

Af­ter all, an emerg­ing Ger­man the­olo­gian pre­dicted — in 1969 — that hard times were ahead.

“From the cri­sis of to­day the Church of to­mor­row will emerge. … She will be­come small and will have to start afresh more or less from the begin­ning. She will no longer be able to in­habit many of the ed­i­fices she built in pros­per­ity,” said the Rev. Joseph Ratzinger, who would even­tu­ally be­come Pope Bene­dict XVI.

The fu­ture will not be­long, he said, to those who “ac­com­mo­date them­selves merely to the pass­ing mo­ment.” A smaller, crys­tal­ized church will “make much big­ger de­mands on the ini­tia­tive of her in­di­vid­ual mem­bers.”

Ratzinger con­cluded: “I am equally cer­tain about what will re­main at the end: not the Church of the po­lit­i­cal cult, which is dead al­ready, but the Church of faith.”

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