Friday, November 18, 2022

The shape of things to come. . .

A while ago a Catholic diocese in the Netherlands announced that 60% of its churches must close in the next five years due to dwindling churchgoers, volunteers, and income.  99 out of the current 164 Catholic churches would have to close in five years. Of the remaining 65 churches, 37 could continue for five to 10 years as “support churches,” leaving just 28 “central churches” considered viable in the long term.  According to the bishop, " the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the process of shrinkage we were already in: faithful churchgoers of an advanced age have grown even older and have sometimes stopped attending church; others have become accustomed to a different format for Sunday mornings, volunteers have dropped out, choirs have stopped.”   In the 1950s around 80% of the Roman Catholics in the Netherlands attended Mass, compared to around 3% of 425,000 baptized.  That would make it roughly one central church for every 13-15,000 baptized Roman Catholics.  Clearly the problem is not simply evangelization and reaching new people but keeping the ones you have and convincing them there is a reason and a need to be together around the Word and Table of the Lord.

But that is exactly the problem, isn't it?  Every Christian tradition is struggling not simply with outreach but with retaining those who belong and convincing them that there is a need, a reason, and a purpose to be together around the Word and Table of the Lord every week.  We struggle with the new norm of once a month regularity and the competition provided by the things that keep us nestled in at our homes and that draw us out but away from worship.  We live in a time when people overwhelmingly think themselves spiritual and even Christian but shy away from the idea of religion.  It is surely the fruit of failed catechesis and an inconsistent practice from their home life growing up.  The Church will need to repent of some sins, the clergy will have to own up to their failures, and parents will need to admit that they depended upon others to do what was their role as spiritual leaders of the home.

No solution begins by simply closing the doors and shuttering up buildings.  Maybe some of them will have to close and maybe the clergy will have to serve various locations to serve the faithful but the answer to the great problem before us is solidly with catechesis,, with the expectation of weekly participation in the sacramental life of the Church, with the renewal that comes from knowing and hearing God's Word,, and from the anchor of this faith in the home.  There will be no impact upon the wider culture if we fail in these things and there will be no headway made against the growing irreligion of culture and society unless we take up the creed and confession and give it voice and witness in our own homes and in our own generation.

We are always interested in short cuts, always tempted by magical new ways around the deliberate, tried, and true path of solid catechesis and Biblical preaching and teaching, without the necessity of faithful, weekly gatherings together around the Lord's Word and Table.  This is our weakness and our temptation and its poisoned fruits have been born in our age, just as they were manifest every time those who went before us sought a shortcut.  But the warnings of church closings ought to be wake up calls for the Church today that effective witness must be accompanied by faithful catechesis and this must be sustained by the unwavering call to be in the Lord's Word and around the Lord's Table every week.  I well recall when I came to my first and also to my present parish the laughter than erupted when I was asked what were my goals and the answer was every member in worship and Bible study every Sunday and living this faith out every week.   We are not guarding buildings but the souls who gather therein.

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