The sign outside the church lists a single Sunday Mass time. The bulletin provides details on the other sacraments, available by appointment only, more of a consignment than a convenience. The church is one of two in the parish, clustered together under a single administration, ostensibly for better consolidated performance but in reality more like two drunks leaning against each other at the end of the night. A few dozen parishioners duck in and keep their coats on. The Mass drifts along to the final blessing and they shuffle back out onto the street. The composite scene repeats itself in Western Massachusetts, Upstate New York, neighborhoods in Cleveland, Detroit, Bridgeport, and more. The lesson: the Church Establishment failed Fishtown.
While we were Coming Apart, the Church practiced a form of fiscal austerity in Fishtown harsher than any government budget bureaucrat. Parishes are closed as if by a regional manager assessing sales performance across several retail locations. But for the Church, a struggling parish should not be an easy opportunity to clear a troublesome liability off the books. The failure of a parish is an urgent signal that a once vibrant faith community has regressed to mission territory. It is a sign for the bishop that the managerial pastor should be removed, and replaced by a more enterprising pastor, missionary, or campus minister type capable of what Flannery O'Connor calls the “action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.”
Underclass communities suffer the most from pastoral negligence of the sacrament of Confession. Those trapped by sin in a cycle of self-destructive behavior are desperately in need of the healing and restorative power of Reconciliation. Similarly, those who lack personal experience and effective models of family life are most in need of the Church's commitment to traditional marriage and child-rearing. For those who heroically seek the sacrament of Matrimony, the Church owes truthful, practical, and evidence-based Pre-Cana preparation, not contradictory hostility to Church teaching or empty pop-psychology about married life.
Fishtown has been denied homegrown spiritual leadership by a crisis of vocations. Well documented by Bishop John Keating and others, this is a self-inflicted crisis caused by the intentional frustration of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The rare success by a pastor in a particular community is quickly disrupted by a rigid policy of rotating priests from parish to parish. This is often done with the unspoken understanding that controversy-free team players will eventually escape failing, poor parishes and receive a comfortable posting to an affluent parish as a reward not for evangelical success but acquiescence to official diocesan programs and fundraisers. This erosion in the diocesan priesthood was accompanied by the retreat of formerly courageous religious orders turned comfortable campus gentry with well endowed private university sinecures.
In a coarsened culture deafened by always-on media, the Church should be a place of silence, of beauty, of higher things. Instead, in many parishes, liturgies are stripped down, grim affairs at best, or banal bastardizations at worst. These liturgies frequently take place in uninspiring suburban boxes, denying local communities the pride felt by the builders of the previous generation's architectural achievements. The rich will always have the Met Opera, but the poor deserve better.
Finally, one cannot avoid the abuse crisis. This was the worst betrayal of local Catholic communities, who gave their complete trust to the elites of the Church. The settlement checks were only signed by senior churchmen; it is the laity who received the enormous bill and the subsequent draining of pastoral resources. While painful cases still trickle into the news, the legacy of the abuse crisis is now a liability-driven compliance culture in many parishes. Like Admiral Ozell, these are as clumsy as they are stupid, most frequently used to frustrate and embarrass married mothers of young children seeking to volunteer their time to build up the communal life of the parish.
In an era of red hot threats and ultimatums, it is Cardinal Robert Sarah's litmus test that the poor and those who serve them must apply to the Church Establishment: “We need priests who are men of the interior life, ‘God’s watchmen' and pastors passionately committed to the evangelization of the world, and not social workers or politicians.” To be led by a faithful pastor, to be healed in the confessional, to enter into a loving marriage, to encounter transcendent beauty, this is what all the faithful need and what the poorest among us most especially deserve.
Stephen Schmalhofer writes from New York City.