A few weeks ago the subject of historic preservation was discussed in a local diocese. Essentially, the promulgation, rather than discussion focused on the fact that local clergy,”should not,” endorse or propose any cooperation to parishioners when it comes to making a Catholic site a historic landmark.
Evidently, historical preservation is not on the list of the top priorities for this local Catholic Community, despite the fact that historically the city is historically important to both Catholics and Americans collectively.
Preservationists should first of all realize that preservation of a particular church or other religious site is indeed a laudable undertaking. With that stated, it is also necessary to state that Catholic churches and related properties are not intended to serve as museums. They are intended to serve as organically living, growing and changing sacred spaces where the Sacramental life of the Catholic Church unfolds. Yes, there are still historical Churches, with especially significant pieces of art or exceptional examples of various forms of architecture…but in the end they are intended as active and living worship spaces. When a Catholic Church ceases to exist as a viable and engaging place of active Sacramental worship, with a vibrant faith community…considerations need to take place regarding the proper disposition of the now simply put,”real estate!
There are many many examples of historically and architecturally significant Catholic Churches that have been closed, consolidated, sold, demolished or designated for use regarding activities that are unrelated to Catholic worship. That’s OK! Parish communities have a life cycle that is reflective of the area in which they are located and the community of faithful Catholics they serve. As temporal beings, we as humans have a life cycle as well. We are born, we grow, we mature, we age and decline and finally we die! Parishes experience the same rhythm that is metaphysically incumbent on all living things, namely a conclusion. Thankfully, as Catholics we believe in the resurrection of the body and eternal life with Christ. The bricks and mortar structures that we use as Churches don’t have an eschatology that is directed towards eternal life. That is why we need to be particularly cautious when advocating Church buildings as worthy of the status of, “historic,” or worthy of, “preservation!”
If indeed a parish church that has been designated with such monikers, preservationists should understand that the costs and care required to maintain these preserved historic sites come with a monetary price. If indeed, there is no longer a living community of Catholic faith that is existentially and spiritually vibrant to support the temporal requirements of their historically, preservation worthy Church, where will the money come from?
Historical preservation regardless of secular or religious buildings is an expensive and continuous undertaking that requires professionals that are experts in these respective areas of both art and architectural preservation. Perhaps, it would make more sense for a diocese or an archdiocese to sell off a particular historic property that has been knighted with the title of Preservation to a non-profit organization that will properly assure that the historical site be appropriately tended as a former living place of Catholic worship. Then the monies realized by the diocese or archdiocese can be more easily applied to vibrant, living parishes that are in need of financial resources to continue the life and ministry of the Catholic Church. The option admittedly is painful when a parish is suppressed, however just as a human body after death no loner contains the essence of the individual that is now gone, empty parish pews and quite churches are no longer reflective of the living Church as the People of God. It is the same as the body of a deceased person, now an empty building.
As the demographics of the various Catholic parishes continues to fluctuate throughout the United States, especially in the North Eastern states, Catholics should regard movements to incapacitate Catholic dioceses and archdioceses as an activity that is unproductive and hinders a bishop’s ability to care for the pastoral flock that still lives and prays and celebrates the Catholic faith in the local vibrant parishes. True, the hierarchy of the local Catholic dioceses or archdioceses could do a better job in communicating the needs of closure, consolidation, demolition or sales of church properties in a better manner. If such actions happen, it might be a very theologically appropriate, and a very Catholic practice if the local bishop or archbishop would escort in procession the parishioners of the suppressed with the Most Holy Eucharist to their new parish, which in most cases is a close neighbor. In this manner, the hierarchy would liturgically be reflective of the great dignity of a closed parish church that has come to the conclusion of its parochial life cycle. We do this with the Catholic Rite of Funerals. There is a Rite to celebrate the suppression of a parish as well. It is certainly time to put the practice into action. After all, when a parish is designated as suppressed, historically significant or in need or architectural preservation, such as designation usually implies that the active parish community is no longer viable. As Catholics, we do need to preserve our history, but we need to accomplish this in a manner that celebrates our Catholic theology of life eternal, not the preservation of structures that are void of the Holy Eucharist and are now merely bricks and mortar.
We believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come. When we accept the fact that our parishes are temporal structures, not part of the City of God, we will more readily celebrate our faith, not in superficially preserved historic places, but in parishes that are alive with faith and love with the Holy Spirit. We are the Church…living stones of faith in Christ Jesus! Let us continue to be living stones as we grow in faith with Christ!