I live in a small town in New Jersey where things have not been going so well for our parish or the surrounding diocese. We have struggled to maintain two priests at our parish. Our pastor, now approaching 75 years of age, has appealed numerous times to the bishop that the Diocese needs to leave a priest at the parish for more than 12 to 15 months to train as his backup. He is understandably concerned as he ages. The school that we have at St. Pat’s is also struggling as incoming students are approximately 50% of graduating students. It does not take a math major to realize that enrollment is dropping and we are not far from the breakeven point. On Sunday, June 2nd, we are having a going away party for two teachers who will no longer be teaching at St. Pat’s school. Needless to say, neither teacher is being replaced.
It took years to get into this tragic situation but here we are. A half empty church and a half empty school. I guess they kind of fit together. The Catholic family of today is not nearly as large as it was even 25 to 40 years ago. Mass attendance has declined and I suspect much of it has to do with the decline in young Catholics. Divorce is higher now than ever before as people marry older, deferring marriage to complete their education and then find that they are not as pre-disposed to marriage (and children) as they were when their parents married. With the end of our parochial-education system in sight, fewer Catholics are prepared to practice their religion as educated Catholics. It is no wonder that vocations have declined and young men and women no longer find religious life attractive. It just does not fit with our secular and quote “modern” world of today.
Will we see a smaller Church? Yes, we will. There is no doubt in my mind that the Church of today could be 50% smaller in the years to come. We have no plan in place to replace the thousands of senior Catholics that are dying off daily. It is like the veterans of World War II; it is only a matter of time and they will all be gone. What can be upsetting is that many Catholics tend to accept this fate and have accepted “closed churches” as part of the pattern of our future. I suspect that many seminaries are full as a significant number of seminaries have closed and the remaining seminaries are being better utilized.
We are all saddened as Catholics by the recent sexual abuse by our clergy that has surfaced but I wonder how much of the decline in religious devotion by Catholics would have actually changed if it had not occurred? I suspect very little. Much of the decline in births, the practice of birth control, declining church attendance, declining sacramental participation, Catholics divorcing, etc. had been well established long before the clergy sexual abuse came to light. Mass attendance, in fact all sacramental participation, was not booming and then declined when the clergy abuse hit.
Tragically, we face a bleak future when it comes to the growth of our Catholic religion. I am hopeful that some rules may change that will allow more and more of our deacons and priests to assume greater roles in the daily practice of our religion. The leadership in today’s Catholic Church has to drop back and re-assess its approach to the practice of our faith. This will not be easy as we have had centuries-upon-centuries in the way we have approached confession, communion, marriage, celebration, attendance at Mass, sexual orientation, and so on. One thing for sure is that the Church of the 21st Century will not be the same as the Catholic Church as existed in past years.