Recently, I attended mass for the first time in a few months. Last year, my wife suffered a stroke and it has not been easy getting out for the time necessary to attend services at my local parish. The experience reminded me of a “mini” Fatima or Lourdes. Most of the congregation at the 9:00 AM mass was composed of senior citizens. Walkers, canes and wheel chairs cluttered the aisles. I looked around and it was obvious there were almost no young people except for a few babies. The pastor looked tired as he still said all the masses on the weekend. It almost seems as if no one wants to really address the declining attendance at mass.
Oh, I know that there are some flourishing parishes out in the furthest suburbs where there are new houses and a lot of young Catholic couples. My daughter belongs to one of those parishes that still has crowds similar to those in the 1960s. But as I travel around what I would consider the areas nearest the City of Detroit, the case is quite the opposite. Less than 20% of Catholics attend church – half of what the pollsters report.
I remember attending a Swiss Catholic church in the town of Herrliberg in Switzerland with my son and his family in 2006. The church was empty except for a few older Germans and a few Swiss seniors. The church had enough pews to accommodate at least 500 people and it held only about 25 people. I commented to him that I hoped that this would never happen in the United States. Who was I kidding? It has happened and the future looks dim. Clearly there is big disconnect between what Catholics say and what they actually do in today’s society.
None of this should really come as a surprise to anyone. In the Fall of 2011, my own Archdiocese of Detroit announced a sweeping reorganization of Catholic parish life that unveiled tentative plans to close some four dozen parishes within 5 years. The 270 parishes that currently exist could be reduced by 60 parishes for a total of 210. So I guess we have to accept the reality of the situation. Empty pews look like the future of our local church. But why? I think the answer revolves around two things that happened and are happening today in the Catholic Church.
I suspect one answer that makes any sense was the disappearance of the Catholic schools that preceded the closing of the churches today. Those schools were at the heart of the church. They educated future Catholics. I am not sure how many exist today but it can’t be that many. What will doom the few schools that are left will be a combination of declining enrollment coupled with rising tuition that is pricing many Catholics out of the market. Yes, they would love to send their children to the local Catholic school but the tuition is prohibitive.
The second reason and a more troubling one is the decline in our faith today. I truly believe that we are in a faith crisis. It seems as if many of my friends no longer attend mass. Mass to them has become irrelevant. And along with the decline in the attendance at mass has gone the participation in the other sacraments. Faith is a gift from God. I think once it is lost, it is difficult to reestablish. I guess all that we can do is pray that the empty pews remain open for use in the future but there is where the real problem occurs – can we ever rebuild the churches that are closing so quickly or are they gone forever?