By Frank Wessling
Home is where the heart is, according to an old saying. The Catholic home for most of us is our parish, and its foundations may not be as secure as we’d like.
With fewer priests in the United States than we had a generation ago, the number of parishes is also down. With the number of priests continuing to decline, we will see more parish closings and consolidations. This onrushing fact is based on the hard reality of numbers and our tradition of priest leadership.
Moreover, the priests remaining to serve us in the coming few years will be an aging group.
In this diocese we can expect fewer than 50 priests to be available for full time parish ministry in 10 years. That compares with about 60 today serving 80 parishes. Like it or not, all of us should expect change in our Catholic home. How to make this change is a challenge for all of us, but is the special challenge of the coming decade for Bishop Martin Amos, for priests of the diocese, and for the lay people and Sisters in diocesan and parish leadership and ministry.
How can we be vital communities of faith, prayer and service, nurturing the Catholic tradition in our young people? In their way, the 19th-century pioneers who brought the faith to southeast Iowa, built the first churches and formed the early parishes faced that same question. We need some of their willingness to endure the uncertainty of change and new circumstances.
This won’t be the first wave of contraction in our diocese. Forty years ago there was a painful series of Catholic school closings. Then, as the number of priests began to fall, a first round of discussion and planning was started on parish closings and consolidation. That pain fell mainly on small rural parishes.
In the last decade, even the big parishes which for years had been staffed by two or three priests found out what life is like with only one, or sometimes a pastor and a parochial vicar shared with another parish.
The vitality of all parish communities now depends less on the time and energy of priests and more on broad involvement by parish members while priests adapt to a leadership of encouragement and collaboration. In small parishes it was always relatively easy to feel that the parish “belongs” to those who are members. This sense of ownership and responsibility needs to be everywhere now.
But there is a shadowy and challenging side to such feelings of ownership: if we lose our church home by closing or consolidation, how easy is it to transfer affection and duty to a new home? Of course it isn’t easy at all. And how easy is it for members of one parish to absorb people from others? It’s not easy to make outsiders insiders.
The Catholic tradition is wide enough and deep enough to be home for great variety in styles of prayer and spiritual energy. It welcomes the emotional and devotional along with the cerebral and contemplative. We hear the Good News of Christ saying there is hope and love enough for everyone, no matter our condition. When priests make this clear — that every honest pray-er is equal to every other one, no matter his or her style or culture — then the uncertainties and challenges of shifting, changing parish homes can be negotiated in good spirit and good time.
Every one of us then has a chance to feel welcome and connected — to feel heart-ease, not heartbreak — in any community that may result from new parish alignments. In this spirit we should be able to carry on with the same hope-filled courage of our ancestors in a solidarity of faith.