My window in Union City faces the great church across the street, which I still think of as St. Michael’s, although now the signs outside say in Korean and English that it’s the Hudson Presbyterian Church. Until its closing and sale in 1981, St. Michael’s was one of the “mother churches” of Hudson County, NJ, where devotions to the Passionist saints flourished and where many of my Passionist community’s important moments took place.
A good number of parishes were established throughout the county from this place, after its foundation in 1869.
St. Michael’s parish was closed because many of its parishioners moved to the suburbs as new immigrants came here and the Passionists couldn’t take on the large expense involved in maintaining the old church. The Passionists were also experiencing a decline in members, and staffing the old monastery was difficult.
Since 1981, church closings have increased in the Unites States, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, due to population shifts, the expense in keeping up old buildings, and recently, a drastic economic downturn. But there’s another important factor contributing to church closings that doesn’t get the attention it deserves: people are leaving the Catholic Church.
One of the best sources on religious practice in the United States is the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (http://pewforum.org/), based in Washington, D.C., “a nonpartisan ‘fact tank’ that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.”
It’s recent survey (April 27, 2009), which reports that about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once in their lives, explores the reasons different groups cite for leaving or joining their religion.
“Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once,” the survey says.
“The group that has grown the most in recent years due to religious change is the unaffiliated population. Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, and roughly four-in-ten say they became unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions.”
“Additionally, many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money. Far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.”
“Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change. Many people who leave the Catholic Church do so for religious reasons; two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they left the Catholic faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, as do half of former Catholics who are now Protestant. Fewer than three-in-ten former Catholics, however, say the clergy sexual abuse scandal factored into their decision to leave Catholicism.”
Almost 1,000 Catholic churches have closed in the US in the last 10 years and more closings will come, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. When the diocese of Cleveland closed or merged a third of its 224 parishes recently, Bishop Richard Lennon had to be escorted by Cleveland police as he made the rounds for the closing ceremonies.
In February, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton announced the consolidation of diocesan parishes –from 209 to 111, citing changing demographics, fewer financial resources and a dwindling number of priests as reasons for the closures and mergers. The bishop’s recent resignation had to be influenced, in part, by the turmoil that came from the move.
It’s a dangerous time to be a church leader, and hard to be a Catholic in a shrinking church. The church is suffering.
A sermon of Origen, an early 3rd century Christian scholar, may offer a good image for understanding our present suffering. He sees a suffering church in the light of the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem.
Just as the stones of the Jewish temple, once harmoniously connected to each other, were pulled away from each other and cast down by Roman legions in 70 AD, so the “living stones” of the church, once harmoniously joined together, can become disconnected and fragmented “by troubles and persecutions.”
“Nevertheless the temple will be rebuilt and will rise again on the third day,” Origen says, echoing the words of Jesus, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2,19)
For Origin, the destruction of the temple is an image of the Passion of Christ. The “troubles” in our present church belong to this same mystery. We’re experiencing them and have no idea how much will be torn down and what the rebuilding will look like. The “third day” is a good way off, but it will come.