Church Closings: The Real Tragedy

Here’s a post by my husband:

The cacophony of blaring sirens, honking horns, and loud profanities is the deafening backdrop as you make your way through the sea of intoxication and into your destined oasis.  The Holy of Holies stands before you.  You genuflect and the cloud of sin in the air that you waded through drops at your feet. You now stand before God.  After that brief moment of peace, you feel a strange state of euphoria and desolation as you realize you are surrounded by your friends posing in stain glass windows amidst a dilapidated building in desperate need of repair if only to plug the dripping holes in the vaulted ceiling.  You wonder how long before her doors are padlocked like her friends’ down the street.

It’s a sight only too familiar for those stepping into an inner-city church in the Northeast. The Northeast has seen almost a 19% decline in the number of churches since 1965, and this past September, the diocese of Pittsburgh announced that they may reduce the number of Churches from 188 to 48. (The final decision is expected this month). The reasons cited for these closings are a shortage of priests, lack of attendance, and “money problems.”

My father was once in a meeting, which included a board member of the Catholic New York Hospitals who said: “No money, no margin, no mission.” So, the answer to address this problem is simple.  More money.  Right? Of course not.

Jim Collins in his book Good to Great in fact finds that the mission of truly great companies is not simply to make money. Rather, they make great products because they have a laser beam focus on their mission.  He gives an analogy of the hedgehog who crosses the road and is attacked by a fox.  Each time the hedgehog crosses the road, he hunches over and exposes his spines, causing the fox to retreat – defeated. What’s the secret to the hedgehog’s success? Focus on your strength and do it well. The hedgehog does not try to outrun the fox or fight him, but he just exposes his spines – every time.

Before trying to find a solution, what is the problem anyway?  Why not just consolidate parishes to address a shortage of cash and priests? Well, if we believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, then the real tragedy is His absence. He’s left our neighborhoods, our schools, our communities. He’s less present in the world.  And, we’ve just taken away one more opportunity for souls to wander in off the street and meet Him.  I wonder how many souls were saved because they stumbled into a Church and met Him in the Eucharist.  Consider how absent he will be in Pittsburgh: 80% of Jesus’ homes might be vanquished.  Think of the grace that touches the souls who even drive by His doors, perhaps completely unaware. Imagine removing God from the world; that is physically what’s happening.

If we acknowledge that the closing of a Catholic Church is indeed a real tragedy, is there a solution to this problem? Is someone at fault for this? Perhaps, you might be tempted to think that it’s the bishop’s fault, or the priest’s fault, or the media, etc. etc.  If so, consider the following:

  • When Venerable Fulton Sheen was asked who inspired him, he said an 11 year-old Chinese girl. Around 1949,  when the communists took over China, soldiers locked up a priest in the rectory and broke open the tabernacle. In an act of desecration, they threw the ciborium on the floor and spilled 32 hosts on the floor. This young Chinese girl witnessed the event and each day snuck past the guard and received one of the hosts. After receiving the 32nd host, she was discovered and beaten to death in view of the priest. This girl, who remains anonymous, inspired Venerable Fulton Sheen to make a resolution to never miss a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, which certainly transmitted through the airwaves and  ignited a passion for the Catholic Church in America during the 1950s.
  • Mary and I remember a similar scene (in the absence of persecution). Two Vietnamese girls would attend Mass each day at a Church in Arizona and sit in front of the Tabernacle gazing at our Lord with great love for long stretches of time.
  • I’ve watched an elderly couple go to Mass every day for many years, so faithfully despite all kinds of dreadful conditions and poor health. I watched the husband take each step, walker in hand, down the communion line; I could feel his physical pain just watching him. Now she brings him home Holy Communion. 
  • I’ve seen Hispanic adorers walk backwards from the exposed Blessed Sacrament as a sign of respect – and love – in a church in California.
  • I know of a priest who goes to Mass twice a day despite that he only has to say Mass once per day. His reason? “The Church allows it, and since Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, I want to receive Him as frequently as I can.” 
  • I recall the father of a Reggae singer who used to be a neighbor. He would attend Mass each day in a suit, tie and shoes that had a mirror finish.  I can still remember him walking into the Church with such dignity and reverence.
  • Then there is the great St. Tarcisius, a 12-year old boy who was beaten to death protecting Jesus in the Eucharist, Whom he was bringing to Christian prisoners in the 3rd centrury.
  • And last, but not least, is our beloved St. John Vianney, Cure of Ars. When he first arrived in Ars, the church was in desperate need of repair. By today’s standards it would probably be dressed with a padlock.  Yet in that small town, where there was little interest in God and less interest in contributing to the Church, the Cure’s love of Jesus in the Eucharist transformed Ars into a historic site to be remembered through the ages.

So, what is the solution to the problem? In the words of St. Josemaria Escriva, “these world crises are crises of saints.” Can you just see how these souls are balm on Jesus’ wounds as He watches the chains wrap around the handles and the padlock locks in place? Can you see Him looking down from the Cross at these souls with such love?

I sometimes imagine a non-Catholic stranger walking into church, and he sees me.  Would I convince him that the God who created the Universe is right in front of him?  Would he be convinced that the Author of all of science, of all time, of life itself, is confined to the form of bread just meters away?  I also imagine myself in the future, in Eternity, looking back at these moments when I am with Him. How would I feel?  Did I give up father or mother, son or daughter, or even wife to be with Him, to talk to Him?  Will I be like one of the nine lepers who did not return to give Jesus thanks, I wonder? 

So, how can we prevent a Church from closing?  By loving Him the way these inspiring and holy souls do and did.  Our love is the key to unlock the padlock to these Church doors.

Forgive the analogy, but to return to the fox and hedgehog: what then is the hedgehog of the Catholic Church? Isn’t it the Eucharist? Where else can we find Jesus’ Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity? Shouldn’t we, the church, be focusing on this gift with laser beam focus?

Lord, may we focus on our strength (You in the Eucharist), and may we do it well.

The End.

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