Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Davenport and Boston: A Tale of Two Cities

Wednesday greetings to all.

A Tale of Two Cities: A Tale of Two Dioceses

Davenport, Iowa

Boston, Massachusetts

I want to begin by expressing my thanks on this blog to Bishop Amos and the priests and deacons of the Diocese of Davenport for their kindness and hospitality over the past several days. It was so uplifting to be in a diocese with such a high morale among the clergy. What a sign of hope for the people of that area of the great state of Iowa. I will talk more about my experience teaching the chants of the missal in tomorrow's post.

My sense of hope was tempered this morning when I read some news about the archdiocese in which I grew up and was reared as a Roman Catholic; the Archdiocese of Boston. Here is the clip I read this morning from America Magazine:

"After millions in sex abuse settlements and a continuing decline in Mass attendance—only 17 percent of local Catholics now attend Mass—the Boston archdiocese apparently is ready for extreme structural change. The archdiocese reports that 40 percent of Boston parishes won't be able to pay their bills this year, and that over the next ten years the number of available priests will plummet from 316 today to 178."

17 percent of Catholics attend Mass in the Archdiocese of Boston. This is astounding to me. I have tried to put into words my own sadness about this but, frankly, words are failing me. I think we have all had those moments in our lives when we contemplate leaving the active Catholic life for one reason or another. This has certainly happened to me, especially during moments of the Church's leaders' utter failures in the past, and currently, with respect to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. But each time I contemplate the possibility of leaving, I find myself echoing the words of Saint Peter from John 6:

As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?" Simon Peter answered him, "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God."
Maybe I am naive or perhaps my faith is too simple, but I just cannot imagine what my life would be like without my active participation at Sunday Mass. I know, deep down, that I need God to keep working on me, and God works on me most poignantly at Sunday Mass. And I grieve deeply for those who, like me, could never have imagined their life without Sunday Mass, but have decided that they can now do without it. What drives good, Catholic, faithful people to come to this disastrous decision? Rather than inventing a new plan for downsizing in the Archdiocese of Boston and spending the all the money it will take to do so, why doesn't the leadership do one simple thing first: ask the tens of thousands of who have left the reasons why they left and do everything possible to bring these people back. This comes straight from my heart. I honestly believe this is a question of life and death for the Archdiocese of Boston, a place that has such a tender place in my own heart. I don't mean to be hyper-critical here, but these are my people; this is my homeland; this is my family. And it simply hurts.

Praying hard today for the Archdiocese of Boston.

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is too simple, but for cryin' out loud, it is still the Church founded by Jesus! No matter how seriously some of its clergy and laity stumble into sin, it is still Christ's one true Church! I can't figure out those who leave. Of course, I have been fortunate to live in a diocese largely (but not completely) unscathed by the abuse scandal. But I still like to think that, even if my own pastor were found to be among the abusers, and our own bishop were involved in a "cover-up", I would be able to separate my anger and dismay with them from any ill-will toward the Church. The Lord God founded it, for cryin' out loud! It cannot be so worthless as to leave it.

Austin Fleming said...

Thanks, Jerry. Your heartfelt comments are gratefully received by someone who lives with and ministers in this reality in Boston. It's a sad and difficult time in the history of the Church of Boston (and other local Churches, too) but I am not without hope. I see, I experience, I share the vitality and strength and joy of the 17% who are with us on Sunday mornings. And I have enough contact with at least some of the 83% to know that many of them struggle deeply with questions about their relationship to the Church and their presence and participation on the Lord's Day. And as you might guess, though the 83% may not be with us on the average Sunday, a good percentage of that group are still with us for baptism, confirmation, first communion, spiritual emergencies and funerals. (Note that weddings are conspicuously and intentionally absent from that list - folks are not turning to the Church to celebrate marriage.)

Again, thanks for what you wrote, Jerry. I hope you might be able to share in some of the hope in my words.

Jennifer said...

Thank you for this post, which must have been very difficult to write. I still call myself Catholic, I still practice my faith, and I so desperately want to be as confident as FJH 3rd that the Catholic Church today is still Christ's one true Church. I profess that at Mass, sure, but I can't help but admit, in my heart of hearts, to some real strong doubt that the Catholic Church as it functions today is what the Lord God built or wants, or that what has happened in Boston (and elsewhere) pleases God in any way. I fear seriously bad decisions and power grabs and flawed human beings have harmed the Church in many, horrible ways. I still have hope, I still have faith, and I haven't given up yet, but some days it is really, really hard to stay.

Geoff said...

Thanks Jennifer for your own heartfelt reflections on the church. Personally, I think that Christ looks at the mess we have made of the church and must just sit in heaven and cry. Unlike FJH3 I do not believe that the Catholic Church is the church that Christ founded. I know...heretical. What I do believe is that Christ came to show us God's immense love and to offer a path back to our Creator. Unfortunately, many of the things that the church does seem to place barricades on that path for many people (myself included). Jerry challenged the Boston diocese to spend some time asking people why they left the church in the first place. I couldn't agree more. But I also firmly believe that the church simply doesn't care much of the time why people have left. We know that people are leaving because of the church's position on women's ordination, the rights of gays and lesbians, the lack of lay involvement at the top levels of decision making, the lack of inspiring preaching, the church's position on contraception (even in the midst of an AIDS epidemic in some of the fastest growing Catholic populations in the world). And not to mention the return to an archaic version of the English language in our liturgy. And what does the church do? Continue doing the same old thing! I love my Catholicism...I became a Catholic in my 20's after spending my entire childhood in wonderful Evangelical churches. I love the sacraments, the Mass, the devotion to Mary and the saints. And believe it or not, I also love the "catholic" nature of the church...the universalism of it all. But, sadly I find myself sitting on the fringes these days wondering when the leaders of my church might begin to listen to the Holy Spirit that is speaking so strongly through the people in the pews (and I would also add speaking through many of those who no longer attend Mass regularly). Come Holy Spirit! - Geoff

Charles said...

We know that people are leaving because of the church's position on women's ordination, the rights of gays and lesbians, the lack of lay involvement at the top levels of decision making, the lack of inspiring preaching, the church's position on contraception...

I see, so people who disagree with the teachings of the Catholic Church and leave should have a veto power to dictate what the Church must believe? What about those of us who actually do believe all that the Catholic Church teaches and have even converted from other faiths because of it?

Geoff said...

Charles, I was not suggesting that those who "leave" (although I think many people remain Catholic deep down in their hearts) should have some "veto power". I was having a conversation with Jerry's suggestion that the church ask why people are leaving in the first place. Your comment suggests that there is not even room for conversation and honest differences of opinion within our church. And this, I think, is really at the crux of the matter. Those who feel alienated from the church simply feel that they have no voice. Most people I know who have left have not done so over doctrinal issues such as the sacraments, the nature of Christ, the gift of revelation, etc. Most people I know could stand and honestly affirm the words of the great creeds of our faith! Their issues with the church are issues of discipline and morals. In my opinion, there should be room for vigorous discussion on these issues...even within our Catholic Church!

Liam said...


As someone who still is actively practicing the faith in the RCAB, I have an earnest caution:

Direct your anger and dismay at your inability to figure it out, not those folks who have come to a different discernment than you or I. The chancery culture of Boston was one where wolves pretended to be shepherds, and that culture has not gone (the RCAB still has yet to fulfill its years-old promises of transparency). What has happened in Boston is the reaping of the bitter harvest that comes when authoritarian power is confused with genuine authority.

I would adumbrate Fr Fleming's remark about the plummeting of ritual observance: it's been several years since it was common to see weddings at Catholic churches on Saturdays (I know, because, going to confession made seeing the tale end of them a common thing, once upon a time). The younger generation, in the main (there are exceptions), has been lost and the Church plays at trying to persuade them but very obviously resents that it has to, and that comes across and strongly.

I would add that, in my own very visible parish of St Paul's in Cambridge, memorial intentions have slowed in the past 2-3 years to a trickle. It's not uncommon to see an entire week of Masses with only one or two intentions at most listed. That is *astonishing* to me.

And, when the abuse situation re-flared in Europe last year, it ricocheted in Boston, tearing open the not-yet-healed wounds. Boston Catholics got to hear Church spokesmen repeat the same tired defensive crap that was trotted out on us in prior episodes, and the refusal of the Pope to accept certain episcopal resignations in Ireland was the nail in the coffin - you could see attendance by younger people evaporate in a matter of weeks. And it has not come back, and I don't see it coming back for some time to come. The newer generation of pastors, inclined towards a catechetical piety and presuming a kind of docility on the part of the laity that has gone with the wind, does not help one bit.

Things. Are. Bad.

And they are getting worse.

I am still here. Most of my Catholic family and friends have left the active practice of the faith, and I've had to spend much effort defending my choice to them. Those of us who are left in the pews are often in a similar situation, but younger, more traditionally leaning pastors, haven't a clue; they affect a revival of triumphalism that will attract an energetic fringe and mask the rot for a while longer.