So this is the shape of progress? Before any Protestants gloat over this, take stock of the state of their own churches in the same areas. The call has been made by some Roman Catholics to reclassify Europe as a missionary field, much the same way the US was until early in the 20th century, in which decisions are not simply left to those who have overseen the mass exodus of people from parishes and, it would seem, from the faith itself. Whether that would be the salvation of European Christianity remains to be seen. But some more effective strategy must be invented better than simply closing down church buildings and reducing staff. As Garrison Keillor joked, Lutherans are all for downsizing but downsizing yourself out of existence is hardly progress.
According to an announcement by its bishop, the Diocese of Trier in Germany will reduce its number of parishes from 172 to 35 by the year 2020. Add to this other announcements of parish closings or reorganizations.
- Berlin: 105 parishes to be reduced to 35 “pastoral spaces”, with unused churches to be sold off and 40% of clergy and lay staffers reassigned, thereby alleviating some of the Diocese’s $140 million debt
- Vienna: 660 parishes to be merged into 150 hubs served by a handful of priests
- Luxembourg: 274 parishes reduced to 33
- Clogher, Ireland: 37 parishes cut to 14 “pastoral areas” coordinated by teams of just two priests and six laypeople
- Utrecht: 326 parishes to just 48 hubs in which only one church will serve as a “eucharistic center”
This is a radical wake up call for the shape of the Christian witness in the heart of the Western world. It is a prospect of our own future in the US and in Canada (perhaps already headed there). The future of Christianity may not be in doubt (that is, after all, God's business) but the shape of the churches who bear His Word and offer His sacraments is looking extremely bleak. And it has come not because we have tried to be faithful and failed. Rather, it has come because we have abandoned faithfulness for the sake of relevance and for the sake of being consistent with the path and direction of the culture around us.
If there is a statistic that compels us to consider the Benedict Option again, this one ought to hit home. In the places where the Church has tried being non-threatening and tolerant, the result has not been a vibrant faith but a hollow and empty one, just like the hollow sound of the once grand edifices where people used to gather in mass at the beckoning of the Word of the Lord to receive His Body and Blood.
We may be tempted to find a way to extend a warm handshake to the world but without Christ the handshake is empty and it offers nothing of value to those who sit in darkness. Light always hurts and burns when someone has sat in darkness for a long time. But in the end, where the Light of Christ burns brightly, the darkness will be banished. That is not hope or optimism. It is the promise of the God who sent His Son into the world to bring the Light of life to those living in the darkness of death.