For the past several days, I’ve been with my Word on Fire team, filming for the Flannery O’Connor and Fulton Sheen episodes of our “Pivotal Players” series. Our journey has taken us from Chicago to New York to Washington, DC, and finally to Savannah and Millidgeville, GA. At every step of the way, we have met numerous people who have been affected by Word on Fire materials: sermons, podcasts, YouTube videos, and the CATHOLICISM series. Many have told me that their exposure to Word on Fire started a process that led them back to the Church. Now I’m telling you this not as an advertisement for my media ministry, but rather as an occasion to muse about what I consider to be a needful change in the way the Church thinks about its essential work.
Throughout all the years of my involvement with the Church, the parish has been taken as the crucial ecclesial institution. Talk to almost anyone involved in Catholic ministry over the past fifty years and you will hear ample criticism of lots of aspects of Church life, but you will, almost without exception, hear praise of the parish. I think here of Fr. Andrew Greeley’s lyrical evocations of the parish as a uniquely successful social and religious institution. Certainly within the context of diocesan priesthood, parish work is the unquestioned default position. Ministry outside of the parochial setting—hospital work, seminary work, teaching, administration, etc.—is acceptable, but it is generally seen as not quite what a diocesan priest ought to be doing. I think it’s fair to say that the overwhelming amount of our money, time, energy, and personnel go into the maintenance of parish structures.
Now please don’t misunderstand me: I love the parish and believe in its importance passionately. Worship, instruction in discipleship, the building up of the community, formation for mission—all of this happens typically within the parish. I did full-time parish work for several years, and I’ve been involved in numerous parishes for the full thirty-two years of my priesthood. Now as a regional bishop in the largest Archdiocese in the country, I supervise and regularly visit roughly forty parishes. However, I do wonder whether, given the unique demands of our time, it might be wise to ask a few questions about our hyper-stress on the parish.
Survey after survey has shown that the number of the “nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated, is increasing dramatically in our country. Whereas in the early 1970s, those claiming no religion was around three percent, today it is close to twenty-five percent. And among the young, the figures are even more alarming: forty percent of those under forty have no religious affiliation, and fully fifty percent of Catholics under forty claim to be “nones.” For every one person who joins the Catholic Church today, roughly six are leaving. And even those who identify as Catholic are spending very little time in and around parishes. Most studies indicate that perhaps 20 to 25 percent of baptized Catholics attend Mass on a regular basis, and the numbers of those receiving the sacraments—especially baptism, confirmation, marriage—are in noticeable decline. Furthermore, objective analysis reveals—and I can testify from a good deal of personal experience—that a tiny percentage of the already small percentage who attend Mass typically participate in parish programs of education, social service, and spiritual renewal. The point—and again, this is to say absolutely nothing against those who do wonderful work within the parish—is that perhaps we should reconsider our priorities and focus, above all, on active evangelization, the great mission ad extra.
Pope Francis memorably told us to “get out of the sacristies and into the streets,” and to go “to the existential margins.” Especially in our Western context, the streets and the existential margins are where we find the “nones.” Two or three generations ago, we could trust that many people (Catholics certainly) would come to our institutions—schools, seminaries, and parishes—to be evangelized, but we absolutely cannot assume that today. But yet we still seem to devote most of our money, time, and attention to the maintenance of these institutions and their programs. Might it not be wiser to redirect our energies, money, and personnel outward, so that we might move into the space where the un-evangelized, the fallen-away, the unaffiliated dwell? My humble suggestion is that a serious investment in social media and the formation of an army of young priests specifically educated and equipped to evangelize the culture through these means would be a desideratum. But that’s a subject for another column.
The last time Cardinal George addressed the priests of Chicago, at a convocation just about nine months before his death, he made a prophetic remark. He told the Chicago presbyterate that, at the beginning of the Church, there were no dioceses, no schools, no seminaries, and no parishes. But there were evangelists. He said that, in light of our present challenges, this is worth thinking about. He was right.