The subject of suppressing a local parish community is always one that raises many emotions and feelings about the “end of life” situation for a no longer viable Catholic parish. The question that should always be asked is this: Are we able (as a Church) to provide to the sacramental needs of this local community without this physical space? Unfortunately, the answer that is frequently heard is…yes!

In the United States, every archdiocese and diocese has provisions to deal with “surplus” buildings and properties that were the bedrock of an immigrant Catholic Church in America. Every nationality that came to experience the American dream brought with them their own unique blend and ethnic traditions of Catholicism. The faithful immigrants clustered around their parish communities, and each other as a new life developed in an unfamiliar United States. Over the years, parish members gravitated towards new and larger homes, the call of suburbia was heeded by many city dwelling Catholics, and the old sod of their initial parish community was left behind. Now in the 21st century, bishops and administrative officials are quite honestly “up to their miters” in large and antiquated facilities, that frequently encompass a church, school, convent as well as rectory.

What is to be done with all of the materials that the American Catholic Church has accumulated since John Carroll first wielded the American crosier? That is a sensitive question. The matter truly has no simple answer, nor any magical cure. Recently in the Archdiocese of New York, the people of Our Lady of Vilnius Parish have filed a lawsuit aimed at blocking Cardinal Egan from closing their parish and removing religious articles from the building. The litigation has even involved the Holy See right to the desk of Benedict himself for resolution in this matter. Recently a New York court favored the parishioners of the parish and indicated all removal of the parish’s religious articles should stop. However, the work is already progressing…and most of the interior of the church has been removed.

Please check out the following link for photos of the church interior. http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/post/index/966/Vilnius-parishioners-s .

As our parochial resources dwindle in Catholic parishes all across the United States this scene will most likely (and already has happened) at numerous Catholic churches in many places. The next question that needs to be asked, after the Bishop after proper consultation with advisors, is one that is extremely sensitive and highly charged.

 Namely, how do you properly dispose of all of the parish’s materials and still maintain a certain dignity for the sites and artifacts? Most places handle this matter by relocating and storing religious articles and offering them for use in another parish. Some places like the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have a specific office for closures that supervises the closing of parishes. They also administer the disposition of the parish’s temporal goods as well as the religious objects. In most cases, materials such as stained glass are incorporated into newly designed structures, or the materials are stored for future use.

However the matter of the proper disposition of parish materials always comes with emotional ties and very practical questions. One point everyone needs to consider…are all of the materials worth preserving and storing for future utilization? While every parish and school and Catholic building has a cornucopia of “things”…who should decide what is worthy of keeping and what needs to go off to salvage? It really is a question fit for Solomon to decide. Just because there is an emotional and sentimental relationship to a parish’s …”things”, that relationship should not automatically mark materials for ecclesial redemption. In situations such as this dioceses should exhaust every effort to preserve the dignity and status of religious objects. They are our touchstones to our historical, ethnic and Catholic past. As is the case, this is not always possible.

So as a result churches are disemboweled of their liturgical and sacramental dignities and packed up for storage…and in most cases the site sold off as surplus. This is a horrible manifestation of modernistic utilitarianism that is striking our Catholic culture, our history and our parishes. Just because a parish community and its buildings are no longer able to sustain themselves…does not mean they should be destined for The Antiques Roadshow, or EBay. After the primary consideration of a local areas sacramental welfare is considered (which by the way, I never hear as the primary concern when closing a parish.) the rest is of inconsequential concern. Our bishops and clergy need to make better strides to maintain a strong sacramental and evangelical presence in local communities, rather than bicker over the disposition of the parish’s physical remains. One of Benedict’s primary reasons for the trip to South America is to ensure we bring an end to Catholic attrition to other faiths. My thought is this…if we cease the trend of progressive Catholic modernism, and worry about our sacramental successfulness as a Church…the issue of “dry-docking” parishes will cease as well. When particular areas loose strong populations of the Catholic faith…where is the evangelization activity that hopes to refortify our Catholic faith?

Where is the sacramental renewal in areas such as these? And why are we permitting our communities of faith to dwindle without proper catechesis and evangelization? Perhaps as an institution our Bishops have given into institutional modernism and conceded evangelization to real estate development. The epidemic of lukewarm evangelization and catechesis by our miter wearing brothers is perhaps the underlying matter that needs to be examined. We are a Church of deep historical roots. Many parishes have come and gone since the Last Supper, however we have gotten beyond an appreciation of the physical buildings. Rather than spend fruitless time and resources worrying about the disposition of material things, our bishops need to worry about what really is the malady. That is simply…the encroachment of new age religions into communities of Catholic believers. Our lack of Catholic evangelical zeal is fueling other religious denominations appetite for new members. Let’s get out of the real estate business and get back into pasturing the sheep.

Hugh McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that writes on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. He writes daily at: http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com & http://catholicsacredarts.com & http://pewsitter.com He writes about Irish Catholic experiences  at http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com  Comments are always welcome @ hugh.mcnichol@trinettc.com

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