USA TODAY US Edition
Friction, fractures await Francis
Pope visits amid slow-motion crisis in the U.S. church
The pope is coming to town, and ordinarily parishioners of Our Lady of Peace Church would be focused on trying to get tickets to the papal Mass at Madison Square Garden. Instead, they’re focused on trying to reverse the decision to close their parish.
Our Lady of Peace is one of scores of parishes closed or merged this year by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which Pope Francis will visit Sept. 24 after a stop in Washington and before heading to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families.
Parishes such as Our Lady of Peace epitomize the challenge facing Francis on his first U.S. visit: an American church in a slowmoving crisis of flagging membership, fewer priestly vocations and school and parish closings — all exacerbated by the lingering ef-
fects of the clergy child abuse scandal.
“It’s great the pope is coming, but look at all the closed churches,” says Janice Dooner Lynch, whose family joined Our Lady of Peace in 1921, two years after the parish was founded. “Our main concern now is, ‘What about us?’ ”
A survey of American religious affiliation released this spring by the Pew Research Center found that Catholics make up 20.8% of the population, down from 23.9% in 2007.
For every convert, six others have left the faith. There are about 3 million fewer adult Catholics than eight years ago.
U.S. Catholic school enrollment has declined from its peak of more than 5.2 million students 50 years ago to about 2 million. In the past 10 years, 1,648 Catholic elementary and secondary schools — about a fifth of the total — have closed or consolidated.
Several schools in regions the pope will visit closed at the end of the past school year, including Pius X High School in Bangor, Pa., which closed after six decades, and Most Precious Blood Elementary in Astoria, Queens, which was whipsawed by rising building costs and declining enrollment.
There are about 20,000 fewer U.S. Catholic priests than in 1965, a 34% drop, even though the Catholic population is 50% larger. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in Washington says about 3,500 of 17,500 parishes have no resident priest, twice as many as 25 years ago. This year, the four parishes in Atlantic City were consolidated into one.
There is almost no evidence of what some had hopefully called “the Francis effect,” such as a measurable surge in Mass attendance or church affiliation because of the pope’s popularity.
U.S. Catholics may see Francis as their best hope for reversing the national church’s institutional slide. In a poll in August by the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service, eight in 10 respondents said the pope understands the needs and views of the American Catholic community somewhat or very well. Only six in 10 Catholics said the same of U.S. bishops.
Hope is one thing. What can a pope whose humility, piety and candor have made him a hero to non-Christians around the world actually do to shore up his own church in America?
“That’s the big question. The answer is, ‘Not enough,’ ” says David Campbell, a Notre Dame political scientist and co-author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. “The pope is very popular, but almost everyone experiences religion in their local congregation, and there aren’t changes yet at that level.”
‘WHO AM I TO JUDGE?’
Francis has become one of the world’s most fascinating public figures since his election in March 2013 after Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly retired.
His appeal stems from his openness, humility and relative informality. He lives in a modest guesthouse instead of the lavish papal apartments; he spontaneously telephones rank-and-file Catholics; he tweets.
Flying to Rome after World Youth Day in Brazil, he told reporters, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” He said the church shouldn’t seem “obsessed” about wedge issues such as abortion and homosexuality: “We have to find a new balance.”
In his first appointment to fill a major U.S. post, Francis named Spokane Bishop Blasé Cupich to replace retiring conservative Cardinal Francis George as archbishop in Chicago. Cupich had a reputation as a moderate, concil- iatory prelate who had asked his priests not to pray in front of abortion clinics because it was too provocative.
This all has encouraged church moderates and discouraged traditionalists.
The net result seems to be something like this: Moderates are hopeful but unhappy with the church on the ground, which is still controlled by traditionalists; conservatives still respect the papacy but are increasingly worried about Francis’ liberal tendencies.
PRAYING FOR A MIRACLE
Our Lady of Peace’s redbrick, 1866-vintage building closed July 31 after the parish was merged with another on Manhattan’s East Side. Janice Dooner Lynch and others have candlelit prayer vigils outside, and they’ve set up a life-size, stand-up poster of the pope with which passersby can pose for photos.
Given the parish’s closing, the pope’s U.S. visit is “a bittersweet occasion,’’ says Jessica Bede, a third-generation parishioner and spokeswoman for parishioners who want the church reopened. She says they hope the Vatican, where Francis yields ultimate power, will rule this year in favor of their appeal.
Lynch was married there, as were her grandparents and her parents. She, her daughter, her mother and her uncle were bap- tized there. The funerals of her father and grandparents were held there.
Last year, it was classified as an “unneeded” parish.
“We have too many parishes!” Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote in an exclamation-packed pastoral letter. “We no longer need 368 parishes in their current locations! … There are 29 parishes in the South Manhattan Vicariate alone — all concentrated on 14th Street or below!”
Dolan said that although his archdiocese has been spending $40 million a year to support such parishes, it’s not just money — the archdiocese will soon face a critical shortage of priests to administer its parishes and must consolidate.
To Lynch, there’s always hope unless the parishioners’ appeal is denied.
She wishes Pope Francis would take an interest in the case during his visit, although she admits that — given the number of parishes being closed — that would take a miracle.
Still, she says, “this has caused so much heartache and anger. So I pray all the time that this comes to his attention.”