Candles at Notre Dame

Despite profound gratitude for Pope Francis, we are losing a generation of young people who may never experience the love of the Great Divine. What ever has happened to a loving Spirit?

When I was growing up in a town of Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets, the only shiny black Cadillacs on the streets belonged to funeral directors, gamblers, and priests. My father’s mother defended fancy wheels for priests because they worked for God. Nonetheless many seriously harmed children as we saw from abuse scandals. 

As Pope Francis uplifts people around the globe, he also seems to be making attempts to humble some of the high and mighty in the pulpits. Pope abolishes honorary title of monsignor for diocesan priests,

Time for change

Now may be the time for a radically different model for parishes, one that includes selling off real estate, rotating priests, fiscal accountability to parishioners, priest grades similar to physician grades, community action and an elevated role for women.

As I talk with young people today most admire the pope, but are cynical of bishops and priests. The scandals still smart. Sadly the church has not transformed itself significantly enough to encourage young people to find solace there when they need hope, solitude, or a place for prayer. 

Young professionals – as well as the rest of the dwindling population of Catholics – want dramatic change. How can the faithful preserve the church? By working together quickly. According to the Pew Research Center:

About a quarter (27%) of American Catholics called themselves “strong” Catholics last year, down more than 15 points since the mid-1980s and among the lowest levels seen in the 38 years since strength of religious identity was first measure…

'Strong' Catholic Identity at a Four-Decade Low in U.S. 

Thoughts on changing the church to preserve the faith

For the most part, the clergy and hierarchy will dismiss these thoughts. But certainly they know the church needs radical change.  But change, even for the better, is difficult. These are thoughts which those concerned about preserving the church for our children must address. When businesses set up employee retreats, people throw out ideas. They look at roles and operations from different perspectives. And eventually new solutions emerge.

1. Sell off pricey real estate and consolidate churches into small blessed parish homes 

Church of the Attic

We do not need so many empty churches. Nor do we need churches per se for Mass. In Amsterdam for centuries after the Reformation, Catholics were not allowed to practice in public. Masses were held in attics or secret rooms, oftentimes along canals bordering on the Red Light district. The church survived. Even today in this country, Masses are held for street people in parks, in stadiums, or even home Masses which strengthen fellowship.

Upkeep of religious buildings has turned priests into fundraisers more focused on money than on inspiring parishioners. Those buildings that will sit vacant on the market, from churches to rectories, can be used as homeless shelters.

2. Sell off the large rectories and institute an apartment model with rotating priests

Following in the footsteps of the Pope, priests can live in apartments. Or perhaps large rectories can become group homes for priests. When delivering food to one of the churches, the priest there spoke of his own parish assignments pointing out:

“The parishioners are the parish, not the priest. We are only needed for the sacraments.”

Indeed, during pastor transitions and sabbaticals when different priests rotate, homilys from other perspectives infuse new ideas and life within a parish. Rotating priests will keep the message fresh.

The downside for priests – this model reduces their chances for a box at the opera or tickets on the 50 yard line.

Opposed but for a sensible reason

Reverend Joseph Santos, administrator of the neighboring parish, Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, explained the parish model today and why he is opposed to doing away with it.

"A rotating priest cannot set down roots," said Father Santos. In talking with him about the the Pope abolishing the honorary title of monsignor, he pointed out the real role of the parish priest: 

"Remember, a priest is called 'Father' only in so far as he reflects in his life this divine paternity.  This is why the Scriptural dictum 'Call no man Father' still holds true. A priest is called 'Father' not because of who he is as an individual but because of who he reflects in his life – albeit imperfectly. This is also one of the reasons that a pastor, according to Canon Law has the right to stability in his assignment – he cannot be moved at a whim by anyone," said Fr. Santos.

3. Start now to provide fiscal transparency and more accountability to parishioners

Priests might consider entering into parish-parishioner partnerships in which all parishioners receive monthly expense reports to see how their money is being spent. Parishioners might also assume some decision-making responsibility. In academia, those of us with grant money turned in detailed line item reports on a quarterly basis. In this way, we saw how it was possible to trim budgets with enough dollars saved to provide seed funding for young researchers. The churches can use this model. 

4. Expect all priests to work directly with the poor

In many cities today there is a disproportionate share of parishes in poor neighborhoods. All priests should be expected to rotate throughout communities to serve at soup kitchens and shelters. Poverty rates surge in American suburbs according to PBS on Jan. 13, 2014.

5. Create "priest grades" similar to physician “health grades” or professor ratings

A well-defined short questionnaire can be administered twice yearly with simple “Yes” or “No” answers to enable decision makers to reach out to priests in need of treatment for alcoholism, anger management, clinical depression, drug abuse, sexual inappropriateness, and stress to name a few.

Because so many bishops were implicated in the sexual abuse coverups, perhaps lay people might serve on clergy evaluation boards. It becomes a win-win. Parishioners are protected and priests receive help for problems that create duplicity.

6. Adopt sister parishes while waiting for church consolidation

All wealthy parishes might take responsibility for a poorer sister parish so that weekly collections are shared more equitably.

In fact, all parishes might consider taking a page from the works of the downtown community, The Paulist Center Boston. They donate five percent of their total fiscal year week-end collection to groups in need. The Center, at which Patty Simpson is administrator, is devoted to inclusiveness, healing, reconciliation, and outreach.

7. Elevate the role of women in the church

Although Pope Francis urges women to take a greater role in the church, he falls short of talking of women as priests. And while more women deacons should be encouraged, many priests are micro managers who feel threatened by strong women as we saw with the Nuns on Bus controversy.

Nearly two-thirds of Catholics (64%) say that priests should be allowed to get married, and six-in-ten (59%) endorse the idea of allowing women to become priests. Pew 

Jesuit magazine and The Colbert Report

Father James Martin, S.J., editor of America, who wrote the foreward to “A Big Heart Open to God: A Conversation with Pope Francis” talked with Stephen Colbert recently. America was founded by the Jesuits in 1909 and is still published today. He stands by the Pope’s words on caring for the poor. 

The two discussed the fact that the Home Depot co-founder threatened to pull his donation from the $1.8 billion restoration fund at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. It seems that billionaire Ken Langone is not happy with the Pope’s emphasis on economic justice. Income Inequality Debate - Jim Martin - The Colbert Report - 2014.

Walking the talk

Despite my years in the Ivy Tower of academia we had a first hand lesson in walking the talk. Our section chief in psychiatry unplugged all coffee makers in our foundation office one day.  Never mind that we were directors and policy makers for the chemically dependent and only a few worked directly in the programs. His words to us: 

“If you don’t know what withdrawal feels like, how can you understand an addict in need of a fix?   

If you never served in a soup kitchen, how do you know the faces of hunger?”

Jittery, angry, and shaking by the end of the day we high-tailed it to the soup kitchens and signed on the dotted line. It was there that we met many of those in the population we served.

More dialogue and fewer car keys

Priests will not be rushing to form conferences to discuss any changes here. It is up to the people. Perhaps it is time for the VOICE OF THE FAITHFUL | Keep the Faith, Change the Church to add to its mission – a return to the church of the disciples and elimination of layers of egos.

These thoughts are for the purpose of starting a dialogue, one that is vital because we a losing the next generation -- denying them the opportunity to feel spirituality loved.

For those priests wishing to make a simple, but immediate statement – and follow in the footsteps of Pope Francis – here is thought. Why not trade in the keys to those shiny black wheels for bus passes or invest in a pair of sneakers designed for walking?  

Have you read these?

Copyright 2014 Rita Watson


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