Recently, I went for a pleasant drive in the country. And as I drove past countless barns, silos and walkout ranch homes with thin plastic siding, I came upon an abandoned parish church. Although it was closed some 15 years ago, the church still stands along with a dilapidated school building. The church was large for a country parish and it appeared to me to have been quite beautiful in its time. Behind the church and school was a cemetery, immaculately cared for, with graves neatly laid out in rows. Everything was so beautiful on that sunny afternoon. And yet everything around me was dead.
It is a widely-known phenomenon that fewer and fewer people live in rural areas. The flight of young people to cities where potential jobs are more plentiful, the artificial limiting of family size and the consolidation of smaller family dairy farms into larger ones are just a few of the many demographic shifts that have led to the closure of rural parishes throughout our diocese and in similar dioceses around the country.
Even some urban areas are now being affected as fewer people practice their faith. Whereas, over 100 years ago, you needed churches about every 10 miles or so to go to Mass on horseback and get home in time to milk your cows, today we drive 25 miles by car to eat a hamburger. It seems to me to be a rather poor exchange. But, nevertheless, we are told that times have changed.
Impersonating a rather amateur archeologist, I have happened upon the ruins of many parishes and schools and seminaries and religious houses scattered across the urban and rural landscape of our state. And I have often wondered, “What happened here? Why was it built? Why was it closed? Who gave the money to build it? What ministry happened here? And, finally, what went wrong?”
Of course, all sorts of reasonable explanations can be found. All very logical, financially sound and theologically correct. It is irresponsible to keep a church open when the people’s resources could be best used elsewhere. A school’s purpose is to help educate children and, when there are no children, why have a school? When there are no priests or religious sisters to train, why maintain the buildings to do so? We have to be reasonable about such things.
Yet, we must never forget that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the church! New ministries, exciting new forms of education, and the engagement of the many gifts and charisms of the laity are just some of the great advances that have been made within the church in our own time. The Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ and he remains its head. The gates of hell will not prevail against us! The church, as the living being that it is, grows and matures. New cells in the body of Christ replace old ones. Indeed, we, the baptized, are the Body of Christ — the church. And we must never forget this fact.
But our buildings are more than simply tools or means to an end. They are symbols. Symbols of faith, of hope and of charity. Yes, buildings of brick and mortar are only one part of the whole. But with their disappearance, what does this say about us?
There are perhaps many answers and potential solutions to these difficult questions. It seems to me that any such solution must always involve the call to holiness. Ours is a crisis of saints. And if we want to stop this seeming retreat, we need to get serious about following Jesus as his disciples within his church. This we must do — and quickly. Time is passing! And it is later than it seems.
Fr. Girotti is vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.