In my May 2021 post, I discussed the impending merger of the three parishes in my city into one “municipal parish” as an opportunity for reform of the Church in daily lives of Catholics. But, it was an opportunity marked by steep challenges: my parish is in New England, a region with declining church membership; priests are scarce nationwide; the pandemic battered parishes worldwide. Here I report some personal observations of living through this merger, which became official on the first of January.
Reflecting regional trends, the membership of my parish is graying and declining, but having a school has helped draw families with children. The pandemic made a huge dent in church attendance everywhere, but recovery has varied. I see only a smattering of children and teenagers in the pews at my parish—in any of the four locations where we worship, with the exception of the Spanish Mass. The contrast with pre-pandemic attendance is notable. So is the contrast with the huge, wealthy, suburban parish in Ohio that I visited this week, where the six weekend Masses were packed with people of all ages.
These differences were not caused by the pandemic but exacerbated by it. (To be sure, the Ohio parish benefits from an upper-class location and an attractive school.) For those who already had a weak connection to parish life, the pandemic prompted them to develop other habits. Both Catholic and Protestant church members over age 55 have been falling away; their reasons are not about any particular crisis or dislike of church, but because they are feeling disconnected and are finding other ways to “practice” their faith.
So, connection is key, and it’s a challenge for my merged parish. Because of their typical size, Catholic parishes are difficult places to get to know other people. Catholic parishes sponsor many groups that allow members to enjoy their preferred activities—from devotions and socializing to volunteer service—while avoiding the interests and styles of other parishioners. Both of these features pertained to my pre-merger parish, where I knew the difficulty of finding more than the handful of folks who were interested in the same ministries as I. Now my parish has tripled in size to approximately 6,000 families, served by one pastor, one associate pastor and five deacons.
From what I have observed during the pandemic and merger, my parish would be sunk without the devotion of its lay members and groups. A silver lining of the pandemic might be its furtherance of leadership by the already engaged members. But, referring back to my previous post, there’s only so far lay leadership goes in the current Catholic Church, not only by canon law, but by enculturation. I’ve observed the tendency of Catholics to hold back from taking initiative in deference to priests. I heard the phrase, “we’ll have to see what the new pastor wants,” a lot during the months before the merger... and said it myself! To his credit, the new pastor has conveyed a vision for growing through the merger that’s about letting the laity to continue their leadership of ministries and take a good bit of initiative. Indeed, it would be impossible and unwise to try to micromanage a parish of this size.
I’ve observed several pressing needs for my merged parish and the many parishes like them, of which I’ll mention two. The first is communications. Unlike some well-financed parishes, neither pre- or post-merger do we have a robust website or a creative use of social media. We don’t have the email addresses of most members, nor do many donate online. There’s one wonderful volunteer keeping the website and YouTube page updated, but for no pay and with no budget. We need a paid staff member and a communications strategy.
Second, I believe my parish desperately needs at least one paid youth minister. It would be a tough job at this point, but this ministry requires more than volunteers; it requires a specific skillset, youthful relatability and full-time attention. Without professional attention to the needs and interests of Catholic youth and their families, the Catholic Church, at least in much of New England, is going to keep dying out. The Ohio parish is privileged to raise $60,000 per week, but they do invest a chunk of these resources into youth programs, and the pastor has a vision for why this is important.
One way or another, parishes and dioceses need to prioritize spending on community building and youth formation. The aspirations that my archdiocese developed at its recent synod all sound great on paper, including, “On all levels, our local church needs to re-envision youth ministry so that it reflects the invitation that this Synod is putting forth to all: to encounter Christ and to become missionary disciples.” But where’s the plan?
Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.