Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Could There be a Silver Lining?

Shortly after it was published in 1982, I bought a copy of the book Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage, written by George Lane with photographs by Aligmantis Kezys. It covered a subject that had always interested me and frankly, I was a little pissed that it came out before I had the chance to work on a book like this myself, at least the photographic part of it. I was assuaged only after learning that the two authors were Jesuit priests, and resigned myself to the fact that they were probably the right men for the job.

As its secondary title indicated, the book centered around church architecture, with entries chosen for their historical and architectural merit. Another sore point, none of the churches I ever belonged to made the cut. But that's all water under the bridge, the book inspired me to visit a great many of the 125 houses of worship covered, especially the Catholic ones which I felt the most comfortable walking around and taking a peek. 

Last week I broke open my copy to get some information for a piece I wrote on the possible closing of the painfully beautiful St. Adalbert Church in Pilsen. Flipping through the pages of the thirty four year old book is heartbreaking as a good number of the churches that Kezys photographed and Lane so eloquently wrote about are now gone, some destroyed by fire, but most of them demolished.

Since the book was published, a massive purging of Catholic parishes took place, initiated in the late eighties and realized in 1990 under the episcopate of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin. In one fell swoop, Bernadin closed 28 parishes and several more schools. I don't have evidence to support it but I think it's safe to say the Catholic Church in Chicago lost a good number of members then as many people who had the only church they ever knew taken out from under them, simply gave up on the faith rather than join another parish.

Here is an article from the New York Times written in 1990 that describes the final mass at one of the churches featured in the book, St.Bridget on the south side. That parish was supporting itself just fine thank you very much; it was in the black when the archdiocese in its infinite wisdom deemed it had to close. The church survived big time urban renewal, being smack dab in the path of the planned construction of the Stevenson Expressway, which jogged a little to the north to avoid it, but it could not survive Cardinal Bernadin. The building was demolished in 1992.

Over the years, the number of young men entering seminary has plummeted. The archdiocese now ordains an average of 10 new priests per year, many of them, middle aged men. The average age of a working priest is currently about 60 years old and rising. One report I read predicted that if the current trend continues. by the year 2030. there will be approximately 230 priests serving in the Archdiocese of Chicago. When you consider there are now 351 parishes in the archdiocese, something has to give. That something it appears will be many more church closings, making the 1990 purge look like a tea party.

Then there was the seven times seven times seven hundred pound gorilla in the room, the priest sex abuse scandal. It's impossible to quantify the damage the combination of child abuse at the hands of priests and the subsequent cover-up by bishops has caused the Church. Beyond the obvious damage to the lives of the children involved, the collateral damage to the Church includes the understandable lack of trust of church authority that has developed among the faithful. More serious is the damage to the vocation of the priesthood. What once was considered a profession that garnered the utmost respect, since the sex scandal, priests are often treated with scorn and derision. Tens of thousands of hard working, dedicated, good priests and bishops have had to pay the price for a handful of sick individuals, the criminal negligence of some of the higher ups, and the general public's eagerness to lump them all together. I wouldn't be surprised if because of the tragedy, the projected numbers of the ratio of priests to churches in Chicago fourteen years from now, will prove to have been optimistic. 

There is another issue in the Church that hasn't been covered much in the wake of all the really terrible stuff, but is lying just below the surface, ready to rear its ugly head at any moment. Many people don't realize it but the Catholic Church does not speak with one voice, but is as divided along ideological lines as much as the society in which we live. One would find it difficult to find common ground between the left and right extremes in the Church, other than both calling themselves Catholic. That's not to say you won't find Catholics with nuanced beliefs that don't fit neatly into an easily defined ideological camp; in fact more than likely they constitute the overwhelming majority of Catholics in this country. If so they are truly the silent majority, it's the extremes on both sides who seem to be getting all the attention, (sound familiar?), and I don't think it's at all out of the question that there will at some point in the near future be a movement to split the Catholic Church along ideological lines.

Given all that, I'm afraid the recent announcement of the plans to close one of the most beautiful and important churches in the city of Chicago is only the tip of the iceberg for the bad times that lie ahead for the Roman Catholic Church, in the United States anyway.

With the very existence of the Church at stake, it may seem trivial to fret about church closings in a city with an over-abundance of Catholic churches. But if you believe that, you just don't get it. Chicago is still in many ways nothing more than a large collection of provincial villages. Folks may know their own neighborhood-village like the back of their hand, but drop them in another part of town and you may as well have dropped them off in Timbuktu.

They say that all politics is local. The same is true for religion but with much narrower constraints. We like to think Catholicism (as the word implies) is a universal religion. The reality is that for many Catholics, faith begins and ends at the front door of their parish church. As I pointed out in my last post, many native Chicagoans identify themselves more with the parish they grew up in than the neighborhood. Lifelong bonds are formed there. Church buildings were built with the blood, sweat, and tears of folks for whom many of the current parishioners can trace their own roots. Likewise, rivalries sometimes friendly, sometimes not, exist among neighboring parishes. Having an administrator come from out of town (like Cardinal Bernadin or the current archbishop, Blaise Cupich), and tell parishioners to give up their own church and go worship at a neighboring parish is somewhat akin to the commissioner of the NFL coming to Chicago and telling fans of the Bears to give up their team and root for the Green Bay Packers.

Obviously, this strong connection to one parish at the exclusion of all others is not how it is intended to be. Much as I hate to admit it, there is a very compelling argument for church consolidation in Chicago. A good example is a non-Catholic church found in the Lane/Kezys book. It was the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany on the near west side. This Richardsonian-Romanesque building was one of the loveliest churches in Chicago, with a small but devoted congregation, whose former pastor is the wife of a friend of mine. Sadly, through death and attrition, the dwindling congregation could no longer afford to pay their pastor and decided to go it alone without any clergy. Eventually with less than ten parishioners showing up on any given Sunday, the Church of the Epiphany closed its doors in 2011.

Sad and touching as the story of the tenacity of that congregation is. I strongly believe that a church community needs to be connected to the life of the greater community. That's a little hard with a congregation numbering in the double digits, let alone single digits. I can't count the number of sermons and homilies I've heard over the years that centered on the need to extend one's faith beyond the front door of the church. As they often do, those sermons fell upon many deaf ears. 

If there is a silver lining to all this, perhaps the inevitable shakeup that is coming to Chicago and other archdioceses across the country, will serve as an awakening and a renewal for the lives and faith of many Catholics. Closing parishes will be a bitter pill to swallow, especially if the guys with the fancy robes and the big pointy hats approach the sensitive issue of the displacement of parishes without compassion, as if it were merely a business decision regarding the bottom line. If they expect to have any flock left, Catholic bishops will have to do some compromising themselves. Perhaps they could start by addressing the shortage of priests by challenging the centuries old practice of forbidding married men from entering the priesthood, an issue I still have a few reservations about, but what the heck. They might even take the radical step of ordaining women, something I cannot for the life of me see any good reason not to do. These steps certainly will not solve the problem of the shortage of priests by themselves, they might even drive some ultra-conservative Catholics away, but I think they would be positive actions in the direction of the revival of the Church, something it desperately needs.

Here I'll take the lazy man's way out and give the last word to Martin E. Marty from an article for Boston College Magazine, lamenting the passing of the urban Catholic Church. Dr. Marty who says it so much better than I possibly could, concludes his piece with the following:
Whoever cares about the Church and the city, the soul and the spirit, has to hope that within the changes Catholicism in America has undergone there can be resurrection. We will not again see "the Church confident," or "the Church triumphant," but we can hope to see the Church well-poised to help gather people of God on their pilgrimage to the eternal city, inspiring them to help build a more humane temporal city along the way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you wish to contribute to save St. Adalbert's, please check the following link on their website. You can donate by check, PayPal or through GoFundMe:


It is worth knowing that the repairs needed to the towers are cosmetic, dealing with the face brick only. Neither the towers nor the church itself are structurally compromised. Please help save this beautiful, historic church today.

Thank you.