Why Close St. Ben's?

Saint Benevolens parish just got the dreaded word. As of next June St. Ben's will cease to be a parish.

To appreciate the reality of this situation there are some things you should know. St. Ben's parishioners -- it's a real place --- have had three pastors in the past four years. They have survived a sexual misconduct case involving one of them and demonstrated enormous care and sensitivity in dealing with another priest suffering with alcoholism. The community has shown great resilience. It has accommodated itself well to the fact that in recent years it has been asked to share a priest with two other communities. Its liturgies are deeply satisfying and spiritually engaging, and its parishioners display an admirable commitment to share responsibility for the life of the parish. By anyone's measure it is a thriving Catholic church community.

You must be wondering why St. Ben's is being shut down, when many good Catholics would gladly give their latest pledge card to have such a community near by. It would be such a relief from the more familiar deadly droning and my-way-or-the-highway clericalism.

I forgot to mention some facts. St. Ben's is a small community, only 125 families. And it's in the country, three miles from a little rural town and twelve miles away from the nearest other parish.

Harsh Realities

Even the person in deepest denial must know that the shortage of priests to serve the parish communities in our country is severe. The fact that an Eastern-seaboard diocese like Brooklyn recently acknowledged as much was front-page news in the New York Times. Dioceses in other parts of the country --- "those places out there that are experiencing a shortage of priests", as Easterners used to put it --- have been waiting for that shoe to fall for several years. The common saying "out there" was that "nothing will happen until the Eastern dioceses begin to feel the pinch."

And the curve of decline will not be a slow glide. In the coming five to seven years the bumper crop of men who became priests in the 1950's and early 60's will reach retirement age all at once. Rather than experiencing a glide, we will go over a cliff.

Some bishops are pursuing the strategy of recruiting priests from priest-rich areas of what we used to call developing countries. At a theoretical level this approach is conflicted. On the one hand it can be presented under the laudable rubric of "reverse mission." Local churches overseas, which in the past were themselves helped to self-sufficiency by the generous support of missionaries from Western churches, are now in a position to share their personnel abundance, a gesture of fraternal solidarity that could be evidence of the universal church at its best. On the other, the practice frequently runs head-on against the universal church's latter-day sensitivity and to inculturation. Some American congregations feel they have returned to the mysteries of Latin -- or Greek! --- when the vernacular spoken by these new presiders is scarcely intelligible, in spite of sincere efforts on the part of these good men. And that is quite apart from their ability to understand the various cultures and customs of U.S. parishes.

Leaving aside [the potential for unexamined religious chauvinism in our response to the] question of foreign priests coming to serve our American church communities, I would suggest that a more substantive ecclesiological issue is at stake: the criteria that bishops are using to determine where priestly personnel will be deployed, regardless of whether they are home-grown or on reverse mission.

Numbers rule. The dominant criteria being used in the closing of parishes are not difficult to discern: numbers of Catholics to be served, and the cost of maintaining facilities.

Example: Recently a large diocese on the Eastern-seaborad announced the closing of a significant number of parishes. The consultant group employed by the diocese to reach these decisions was one of the country's largest accounting firms. And the parishes closed were those in the inner city, which were encumbered with large church plants. The plants themselves had been built in an earlier era by growing populations of Irish, Italians, or Germans, each trying to outdo the others in the magnificence of their Gothic church. Then each white ethnic group fled to the suburbs, leaving to African-Americans or the latter-day immigrants --- Latins, Asians, Pacific Islanders --- the cost of maintaining what had become their white elephants. After reading the diocese's attempt to spin a respectable rationale for what they were doing, one woman, who is by no means a bishop-basher, was heard to say, "What would you expect the answers would be, when they used bean-counters to advise them? I don't care what they say, it's clear they're just abandoning the poor."

The unfolding scenario

If we look at the cumulative trajectory of the application of these criteria, the picture of the church of the future in the U.S. is not difficult to map. The poorer core of our larger cities will be without priests, as will the smaller towns or rural areas of the dioceses. Ordained personnel will be assigned to the larger, relatively more affluent suburban communities that ring the metropolitan cores. It is the church's version of the pattern of secular society: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

This is not to say that the church is some sort of ethereal reality in which the constraints of economics play no role. [No, the church, like Jesus, is not a monophysite being; it is incarnational in nature, divine and human.] Like every other human community it must attend to economics, to the wise shepherding of limited resources. But should economics be the highest priority, much less the only one? Do all the things we assert about the mission of the church fade like will-o-the-wisps when it comes to hard choices? What about the preferential option for the poor? Or the divine mandate to give priority to evangelization, to making the good news [-- and the personnel resources to have it heard and responded to --] available in places less blessed with this world's assets? Does leaving the 99 sheep to search out the one abandoned one perhaps have social as well as an individual application?

What would happen if a diocese were to say to its suburban parishes, "You have lots of resources to care for the spiritual needs of your community. You enjoy the benefits of higher education and training; you have gifted professional laity; and you have the financial resources to hire the qualified lay ministers coming out of good training programs. Why, you can even afford to embody Catholic social principles and give your ministers a family wage! No, you may have to go without Eucharist once or twice a month, but our diocese takes its evangelical call seriously. St. Ben's and its two partners are our diocese's missionary frontier. We're going to give priority to having a priest out there. . ."

It doesn't have to be

The irony is that, even if he has no priest, the bishop doesn't need to terminate St. Ben's existence as a parish.

Neither in the 1918 nor the 1984 Code of Canon Law is there any requirement that a parish needs to have a resident priest. The former code never even had a definition for a parish. The newer code finally gave a definition: a parish is a certain community of Christ's faithful stably established within a particular church, whose pastoral care, under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor. Such a community does not have to have a physical structure such as a church or chapel. It does not have to have a resident priest (or one within a specified distance). The focus of the church's concern is threefold: that the community be a gathering of those who are "faithful", that it enjoy "stability", and that the oversight of the community's pastoral life be entrusted by the bishop to a designated priest-pastor. Further specification of the meaning of those terms is left to local church authority.

Why can't the bishop recognize the pastoral vitality of St. Ben's, declare that it is a viable faith community, and give it stability by naming as its pastor a priest skilled in working with its pastoral agents? They are the ones who already have been doing the job of handing on the faith, mobilizing the community's human resources in care for the needy of the area, and leading the prayer-life of the community. St. Ben's is not expecting to have Eucharist every week. They [can read the wisps in the incense and] know that an expectation like that is unrealistic. But why take away the legitimacy that comes from being recognized as a parish --- an alive Catholic faith community --- when it isn't necessary? What does such a step communicate to a geographic area that already feels itself to be second-class citizens in our get-ahead society?

It is probably too late to save the parochial status of St. Ben's. But can't we begin a public conversation about the criteria being used to make these decisions? They should be the subject of any synod or effort at pastoral planning. Is it wrong for Christ's faithful to ask that such decisions be made on the basis of an ecclesiology of mission and evangelization rather than logistical or administrative expediency? Are these communities of the faithful? or are they McDonald's franchises?

George Wilson, S.J., is an ecclesiologist who does church organizational consulting with Management Design Institute out of Cincinnati, Ohio.