There’s a news story that’s becoming far more common throughout the United States today that goes something along these lines: “Bishop (name here) of the (name of city here) Diocese announced yesterday the closing or merging of (insert double digit number here) parishes. He cited the shortage of priests and declining numbers of people attending Mass as the main reasons for the changes. Another factor in making these moves is the number of Catholics who have moved out of the central city to the suburbs.”
This may seem like common sense. You’re an institution whose members are moving from one place to another, so you close down resources in the less-populated areas to serve your members in the more-populated areas. This way of looking at things may be likened to the need for fewer hospital beds in one area because people are staying healthier or the need for fewer schools because the number of children is declining.
But there’s something fundamentally wrong with this way of viewing things when it comes to the Church – it’s not Catholic. Yes, if you’re a purveyor of some widget or service and the people who buy or use it are moving to a different area than where you’re located, go ahead and move so you can sell your wares or services. But the Church is not a consumer-oriented or even a merely service-oriented institution. The Church exists for the purpose of fulfilling God’s mandate to preach the Gospel to all humanity. So to say we’re moving out because our members are moving out misses a fundamental aspect of the Church – the preaching of the Gospel.
This is not to say that we ignore fiscal realities. Yes, a beautiful parish church in a densely populated urban center that is undergoing demographic change can be hard to maintain and we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the resources we have. But I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by limiting our vision of stewardship down to simply managing what money and physical resources we currently have.
For stewardship means that we have to manage all we have, including our spiritual resources. So if we say that a particular neighborhood is becoming less Catholic because the Italians or Irish or Poles have moved out, we have to ask ourselves a couple of questions: 1) How did those ethnic groups become Catholic in the first place, and 2) what of those who are moving in?
The answer to the first question is obvious – they became Catholic when they heard the preaching of the Gospel, however many years ago that was.
The answer to the second question is also obvious – we need to preach the Gospel to them.
To say that these groups are Catholic and these are not – and will most likely never become so – belies the misconception, if not downright falsehood, that the Gospel has been preached everywhere and has exhausted itself on certain types of people.
But Jesus Christ came not to save only Poles or Italians or Mexicans, but every single individual person. As St. Paul said, “There is no Jew or Greek here...”
So whose responsibility is it to preach? Stated simply, every Catholic’s. The bishop has the primary responsibility to see that it is done and to do it himself. As a successor of the Apostles, he must ensure that the Gospel is preached in its entirety in his diocese – and not only to Catholics. The priest has the responsibility to preach the Gospel in his parish – and not only to Catholics. Deacons must do it as well as the Religious. And we laity have the responsibility, as Vatican II said, to be leaven in the world, preaching the Gospel in our everyday lives.
We cannot simply be content to claim demographic shifts as the reason for parish closings or openings. By doing so, we limit God and deny these new people the chance to respond to the Gospel. If a parish’s numbers are down in a place where the general population is steady or growing, but only the types of people are changing, then the parish has the task of bringing the Gospel to those who are moving into its boundaries.
A roadblock to preaching the Gospel today is the mistaken notion that we cannot “impose” our values on others and we don’t want to be “sheep stealing,” so we must only talk to those who are “unchurched.” The most striking example of this was the document issued last year that said we cannot preach the Gospel to the Jews. (God forbid we should ever remember that the Catholic Church contains, by God's grace and mercy, the fullness of truth and the human heart is longing for that truth for its own salvation. Who knows what would happen then? We might actually start going door to door!)
This is certainly not what the Lord had in mind when He commanded the apostles to “Go, therefore, and teach all nations...” Nor does it equate with the experience of many people today coming into the Church from Protestant denominations because they see the fullness of the truth in her. Just ask all those former Protestant ministers from Scott Hahn and Jeff Cavins to Marcus Grodi and Alex Jones. And what of the many Jews and Muslims who have recently become Catholic?
So we need to bring the Good News to the Bosnians, Serbs, Somalis, Hmong, Sudanese, Turks, Russians, Thais, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, and all the other ethnic and religious groups that come to our shores, cities and towns. In fact, it seems to me that their coming here is making it easier for us to fulfill the great mandate, “Go and teach all nations.” All the nations seem to be coming here, so we don’t have to “go” anywhere, except out our front doors and down the street.
Certainly how we preach is important so that we do not force, coerce or pressure anyone into accepting the Gospel; that is simply wrong. But it is second in consideration to the fact that it needs to be done.
So if we believe what Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father but through Me” or what St. Peter said, “There is no other Name given under heaven by which we may be saved,” or what Pope John Paul II said, “Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all,” then we see that we have plenty of fertile territory and a lot of work ahead of us.