What kind of mindset built all the immigrant Catholic parishes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Americas? Was it a way of thinking predicated on practical limitations; on being “realistic” in the mundane sense of the word? This can hardly be so.
Something deeply potent—and even slightly irrational to the modern mind—had to have been the driving force behind the postponement of personal comfort and social success long enough to establish a parish and build a worthy church. Yet, the formula was simple enough: a solid reliance of the faithful, united with their shepherds, on their own gifts in cooperation with the providence of the Almighty. They simply believed, and their belief formed the very center of their being.
Evidence of this mentality can be seen among the many fine churches of cities like Buffalo, New York. Most people outside of the immediate region have probably never heard of St. Ann’s Church and Shrine on the city’s East Side, built by the newly emigrated and first-generation German population in the 1880s. I, until quite recently, was one of them, but circumstances surrounding this massive neo-Gothic work of art have garnered significant attention over the past months.
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Citing severe structural deterioration, the Diocese of Buffalo abruptly closed the church in 2012, and parishioners subsequently learned that it was in danger of being razed, because the unsafe conditions were deemed too costly to repair. As a last resort, a band of dedicated faithful made a formal appeal to the Holy See, and in January 2014, a very rare and unlikely thing happened—the Vatican’s Congregation of Clergy issued a ruling that St. Ann’s must not only be salvaged, but remain a functioning Catholic church.
This is no small development, and it may signal that even the Holy See is starting to question the wisdom behind the endless cycles of consolidations and closings that have befallen many United States dioceses in recent decades. One would think this extraordinary action would be enough to give the diocese pause, but Bishop Richard Malone has said he will appeal the ruling, determined that St. Ann’s will never again be used as a Catholic church.
In defense of His Excellency, an orthodox and forthright shepherd, this was an inherited problem. St. Ann’s had already been shuttered by the time of his installation less than two years ago and had to have suffered years of previous neglect in order to develop what even the former parishioners realize are serious problems. To be sure, this particular situation is less than black and white.
However, St. Ann’s is just one case of what has become a creeping epidemic. The real issue of concern is not the story of a single church that happened to make national mention because of its unusual eleventh hour reprieve. Newsworthy as that is, it only calls attention to a broader scenario that has been born out with an alarming degree of frequency across many areas of the country.
Simply put, many bishops, pastors, and parish councils seem to be planning for the eventual extinction of any meaningful Catholic presence in their regions. Though never presented in so many words—and possibly not even consciously realized by many of those behind the decisions—that would be the ultimate outcome of the current “downsizing” strategy, if taken to its logical end.
How have we gotten to this point? Beyond the obvious problem of prolonged widespread catechetical deficiency, there are at least two ways in which the current mindset of many in the Church has departed from that of the builders of St. Ann’s and their ilk.
The first departure consists of a fundamentally worldly approach to problems, dictated almost entirely by human limitations and a practical forgetfulness that with God, all things are possible. Many in leadership positions will point out that it is up to parishioners to keep their parishes alive, and that the laity bears primary responsibility for the extent to which Catholic identity has flourished or disintegrated. A valid argument can certainly be made for this, but those same lay people need to be encouraged, enabled, and supported in their endeavors by leaders with concrete authority, lest the morale of the parish and the wider community begin to flounder.
If the faithful are regularly reminded of the awesome depths of divine providence when combined with their efforts and sacrifices, they very likely will respond, and respond enthusiastically. If, on the other hand, they constantly hear about their own limitations—be they financial or otherwise—and fallacies about how a robust Catholic vitality once known is no longer possible today; then malaise and apathy gradually set in, and faith can be weakened and even eventually lost.
This is most certainly not a Catholic attitude. Since when are we driven more by apparent practical constraints than by faith and desire to do the will of God, even when it may be incredibly impractical, if not even seemingly impossible? Were mediocrity a product of the Christian mind, the Church would not have survived the first century. “Impossible” has never been in the vocabulary of any of the saints, and it certainly was not part of the mindset of those whose tireless labor built up the Catholic world.
The second departure has been an unfortunate reduction of our understanding of the parish church and associated buildings—that is, the physical nucleus from which the very life of the parish is nurtured and reinforced—to that of a simple collection of utilitarian assets and liabilities that are always up for potential negotiation. A common justification for such an undermining of the importance of sacred place in Catholic life is the assertion, ad nauseam, that the Church is the people of God and not a building.
This, of course, is entirely true, but was there ever really a time when faithful Catholics thought otherwise? This straw man argument has been used in recent decades to such an extent, that many have come to think the worship environment is a place no different than any other. In a short two or three generations, the “just a building” mantra has enabled the infliction of so extensive a devastation upon the physical fabric of the Catholic world—through careless loss, senseless disfigurement, and introduction of novel forms of banality—that it would cause any outside enemy of Christendom to simply sit back with folded hands and smile.
In centuries past, those seeking to level or confiscate sacred edifices were the Church’s sworn adversaries, who tried to storm her fortresses and attack her from without. In this, our own day, however, there are Catholics in many places whose biggest perennial fear is not savage invasion, but the euthanizing of their parish at the hands of their very own bishops and pastors. Is it not time for an honest recognition and acknowledgement of the deep spiritual and psychological harm caused by this phenomenon?
The common thread between both of the aforementioned departures from traditional Catholic thinking is the replacement of a spiritual battle mentality with a corporate management mentality. In short, the Church Militant has become a Church stagnant, whose focus has come to rest more on the concerns and comforts of this fleeting life than the union of the faithful across time in preparation for eternal realities. Given this, can there be much wonder as to why pews have emptied and churches have closed by the hundreds?
At the same time, though, the spirit of past generations has not been lost and has never died; it’s just been forgotten and suppressed by so many of its stewards and shepherds over the course of a half century or more. The more we talk about it nostalgically, as a thing confined to history, the more it will remain just that, and evermore distantly so with the progression of time. Yet, what if serious solutions were explored that might proactively neutralize and even begin to reverse this entrenched “going out of business” mentality, rather than reactively accommodating it in perpetuity?
What we must realize is that a reversal of the decimation can begin at any point—we as a Church just need to decisively identify it as a critical priority, then work and sacrifice for it, and leave the rest to divine providence. It seems that the small determined band of St. Ann’s parishioners gets this, and they have been given a healthy dose of hope all the way from Rome. There appears to be a loving care and genuine will to save their church and make it a center of revitalization for the tired, surrounding neighborhood.
Can it be done? That remains to be seen, but why insist on fighting the attempt? The worst thing that could happen is that the fundraising goal would not be met, and the church would sadly be lost. However, if the determined grassroots campaigners were to gain even only the verbal support of their bishop, it would almost certainly become a success story. The first step, as it has been in any previous century, is for all—sheep and shepherds alike—to rally and simply believe.
Editor’s note: The lead image above depicts the interior in St. Ann’s Church and Shrine, Buffalo, NY. (Photo credit: Derek Gee / Buffalo News.)