Friday, September 29, 2006

Our Parish Anniversary - 125 Years

This weekend, our parish will celebrate 125 years in this small farming community. The town itself is not much older, having been established in 1865. We will be reliving memories of the first 125 years with Mass celebrated by our Bishop and a dinner program following at the local middle school gymnasium. I have been around for over 50 of those years, and my ancestors for more than 100. While we will certainly enjoy looking back, perhaps it is also a good time to look ahead. Just as the President makes a State of the Union address each year, we should also look at the state of our parish.

We live in a community of about 2000 people and only a small percentage are Catholic. As this is a rural area, a good percentage of our parishioners come from the surrounding area. We probably have about 300 active members at this time. Our parish school closed in the 1970's due to declining enrollment and a lack of qualified teachers. Once staffed entirely by the Sisters of Saint Francis, lay teachers were needed as the number of available sisters diminished. The parish could not afford to hire teachers and support the school with tuition money.

The importance of having the school was never realized until long after it was closed. Having good holy nuns directly involved with the formation of children was also an important factor in the spiritual welfare of the parents. Around the time the school closed, we were also feeling the effects of Vatican II reforms. Society itself was in a transitional period. Traditional moral values were being challenged by the effects of the drug culture and sexual liberation. Church attendance began to decline. Where ushers once found it difficult to find seating for everyone at some Sunday Masses, there were plenty of empty pews and the number of Sunday Masses was reduced. Spiritual life was no longer the central force for most Catholics in our parish it seems. I am sure this was not unique to our situation.

Those of us who have been around awhile are certainly aware of changes in the church. Why does a church, 2000 years old, established by an unchanging God, seem so different today as compared to the church we knew as children? In actuality, despite the reforms of Vatican II, it is society that has changed rather than the church herself. The changes we see are more the result of the changing of its members. Evolving attitudes manifest themselves in the way we worship. Secular influences affect the way we all think and behave, even those responsible for the formation of seminarians. Once the shepherds of the Church have their spiritual direction diverted, it is only a matter of time before the flock goes astray.

Attitudes changed drastically back in the 1960's. In the era of drugs, sex, and rock and roll, we seemed to lose all respect for authority. The Viet Nam conflict caused many young people to disconnect from societal norms of the time. They rebelled against the establishment viewed as government, parents, and even the Church. With no one else to answer to, we became very self-centered. Relativism became the norm. Many began to question absolute truth. Fewer vocations were honored and many seminaries began to close. In an effort to attract young men to the priesthood, the emphasis of the spiritual life was probably relaxed in favor of a more social or fraternal life experience.

The reduced number was not the only problem. Many of those coming out of the liberalized seminaries were frankly not very good priests. Some of them went on to become lousy bishops, as well. Things were allowed to occur that should never have happened. We are all aware of the many cases of abuse by priests. While nothing can ever compare to the damage done by sexual abuse, other less notable abuses still occur within liturgies and other priestly responsibilities that are lax or misdirected.

Those who travel or have occasion to visit various parishes have undoubtedly had jaw-dropping experiences at Sunday Masses. My son just began his freshman year at a Lutheran University where he attends Mass at the Catholic Center across the street. He laments the fact that the Lutherans sometime appear to be more "Catholic" than the Catholics themselves. Accustomed to some semblance of reverence at our home parish, he was shocked to experience improvised Eucharistic prayers, no kneeling, chasubles made of bed sheets with handprints painted on them, and Happy Birthday sung at every Sunday Mass. Many priests seem to feel the need to make the Mass a toga party of sorts to keep young people interested. If only they understood and appreciated the miracle that is happening before them, no fluff would be necessary. Where is our catechesis?

There are still many excellent priests, but they are often overshadowed by the exploits of the less spiritual. The best ones tend to be assigned to large parishes where they can do the most good, leaving us at the smaller parishes to contend with those placed where they can do the least harm. One would expect the local bishop to pull on the reins once in awhile, but maybe he does not want to deal with the situation. In light of some of the recent scandals, we should not be surprised to see a bishop shun his responsibilities. It is also possible bishops are not aware of what may be going on in certain parishes. The holiest members of the congregation are the most likely to show respect to the office of the priesthood, making them reluctant to rock the boat by reporting liturgical or administrative issues. The less religious either don't recognize the problems or they don't care.

We have dealt with extremes when it comes to the local pastorate. From a very holy man who could not interact with ordinary people, to a very sociable priest who likes to visit the casinos, we have run the gamut. One was never seen without his collar, and the other seldom seen with. Somewhere in between, we have also had good parish priests who did their best to lead us closer to Our Lord. I am sure it is not an easy vocation. A priest must deal with many responsibilities, both administrative and spiritual. He must be on call twenty-four hours a day, ready to assume the burdens of others at the worst times of their lives. While we all turn to others in times of trouble, the priest often has no one to turn to but God.

So, what does the future hold for our parish? That is a difficult question to answer. We have already been told we will have to share a priest with a neighboring parish soon. The loss of the parish school, as detrimental as I think it was, will pale in comparison to not having a resident priest. Prospects for an increase in vocations are not good in this diocese. While vocations are growing in many of the more conservative dioceses, such has not happened here yet.

On a positive note, an exciting influx of Protestant converts is taking place all over the country. Some of the most fervent followers of Christ are finding the truth of the historic Catholic Church, thanks in part to the many Catholic Apologetic organizations that have sprung up in the past ten to fifteen years. Many of the groups are run by former Protestants who through their studies have discovered the one true Church Jesus founded. In some cases, Protestant clergy are leading members of their former congregations in the same direction. What we cradle Catholics sometimes lack in evangelistic fire is now igniting others within the Church. I am optimistic about the future growth of the Church. I pray it does not come too late for our parish.