family life

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

The headlines keep appearing in Catholic newspapers, before the news migrates into the real-estate coverage in mainstream media.

The bottom line is the bottom line. Catholic shepherds decide that they have to pull the plug and close parishes in which declining and aging flocks of believers have struggled to pay their bills. These aging sanctuaries are often located on valuable pieces of urban real estate.

Some parishes vanish. Others are merged into one facility to make efficient use of space, as well as the crowded schedules of a steadily declining number of priests.

"On one level, it makes sense. You close a parish -- I understand that many parishes are in financial trouble -- and then in a few years you get to tear it down and someone moves in and builds condos," said Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, an independent online news service.

"The questions that I think we have to ask our bishops are, 'Why is defeat inevitable? Why do we assume that all of these parishes are going to decline and close? … What if you put someone in there who offered a brand of Catholic faith that had some evangelical zeal? What if we still believed that Catholic churches could grow?' "

Do the math, he said. Growing urban flocks would need places to worship. But once these historic Catholic sanctuaries are gone -- they're gone. The cost of building replacements would be astronomical.

All of these real-estate decisions, he said, hinge on management assumptions that are profoundly spiritual.

Once upon a time, "American cities are dotted with magnificent church structures, built with the nickels and dimes that hard-pressed immigrant families could barely afford to donate," wrote Lawler, in his new book, "The Smoke of Satan," addressing several interlinking scandals in Catholic life. "Today the affluent grandchildren of those immigrants are unwilling to keep current with the parish fuel bills and, more to the point, to encourage their sons to consider a life of priestly ministry."

Yes, there are cases in which parishes serving different ethnic groups were built within blocks of each other. But Lawler is convinced that the typical church that is being closed and sold is "located in a comfortable, populous neighborhood, with no other Catholic church particularly close at hand and no special reason why the community that supported a thriving parish in 1960 cannot maintain the same parish now. … No reason, that is, except the decline of the Catholic faith. Parishes close because Catholic families don't care enough about the faith to keep them open."

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

It was the feast of St. Mary, Mother of the Church, so writer Leah Libresco and some friends decided to have a traditional procession through their neighborhood, while praying the Rosary out loud.

"I live in New York City, where this was still not the weirdest thing that anyone would see that day," said Libresco, speaking earlier this winter at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The procession received some puzzled looks along Broadway, near Lincoln Center. Their images of St. Mary sure didn't match the vision of womanhood seen in advertisements they passed.

This wasn't a public statement. All these New Yorkers were doing was celebrating the feast together, creating a face-to-face community with faith, food and fellowship. There's more to life than sitting at home, firing tweets and text messages at the world.

Long ago, Libresco explained, ascetic monks called "stylites" believed they should spend their lives fasting and praying while living atop pillars. This kind of solitude, obviously, was not for the average believer.

Today, many Americans have become "accidental stylites," she said. They are isolated from one another by jammed schedules, job demands and all those digital devices that were supposed to aid communication.

"A lot of folks wind up living hermetic lives, living their faith alone -- nakedly before God -- without the assistance of a monastic superior, or a community or anything else," she said. While monks carefully choose lives of solitude, that path would be "a terrible idea for the rest of us."

Once known as a popular atheist blogger, Libresco began exploring spiritual disciplines after converting to Catholicism in 2012. Her new book is called "Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name." The title is a reference to journalist Rod Dreher's bestseller "The Benedict Option," which challenged modern believers to build local support networks -- involving education, the arts, even small businesses -- in an increasingly post-Christian America. Dreher (a friend of mine for 20 years) wrote the foreword for Libresco's book.

Building on Dreher's manifesto, Libresco wants to encourage Christian hospitality in settings more intense than young-adult gatherings offering shallow chitchat over wine and cheese.

"My goal, always, in building the Benedict Option, is not to turn away from the world," she wrote. "Feeling the need for the thicker community of the Benedict Option … isn't the same as rejecting the world or fearing it. … A claustrophobic feeling can creep into your spiritual life when you practice it alone."

Separation of church and life: Many pastors struggle to handle issues of sex and technology

Separation of church and life: Many pastors struggle to handle issues of sex and technology

If Daniel Weiss has learned anything about the small towns of east-central Wisconsin, it's that folks in the region he calls home care about what they eat.

Say buzzwords like "organic," "natural" and "superfoods" and -- snap -- people will organize fairs, farmers markets, farm-to-table workshops and debates about whether local free-range chickens have healthy social lives.

"You can talk about fresh veggies and how important food issues are for their families," said Weiss, leader of the Brushfires Foundation, a sexual-integrity ministry based in Omro, Wisc. "People in a secular society will bond together to talk about food and good health. That's real. That's safe. …

"It's totally different -- even in our churches -- if you try to get people to talk about pornography, smartphones, videogame addiction and all the stuff that's filling up their hearts and minds."

When asked about these issues, many pastors say things like, "I don't want to be negative," "That's a parents thing," "Tech issues are so complex" or "I'm afraid to offend people and run them off." Many pastors think silence is the safest option.

That's a naive attitude in modern America, according to Barna Group research commissioned by Brushfires, and supported by 24 national and state groups, such as Focus on the Family and Enough is Enough. Researchers contacted 410 senior ministers in 29 evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations, along with non-denominational congregations. Pastors were asked about 18 issues, including marital infidelity, premarital sex, same-sex relationships, sexting, gender dysphoria and the use of pornography by husbands, wives, teens and young children. Among the findings:

* Eighty percent of these Protestant pastors said they had been approached during the past year by church members or staff dealing with infidelity issues and 73 percent had faced issues linked to pornography.

* Seventy percent of the pastors said they dealt with serious "sexual brokenness" issues in their flock several times a year, with 22 percent saying this took place once a month or more.

*Only a third of the pastors said they felt "very qualified" to address the sexual issues being raised by their staff and church members.

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

It's a statistic tourists in Rome often hear while gazing at centuries of glorious architecture: The eternal city contains more than 900 churches.

Other statistics will affect those holy sites in the future.

For example, a record-low 458,151 births occurred last year in Italy. The fertility rate -- currently 1.32, far below a 2.1 replacement rate -- is expected to decline again this year. Meanwhile, the number of marriages fell 6 percent, between 2016 and 2017, and religious marriages plunged 10.5 percent.

"Currently we are at a roughly terminal stage. It would not be bad if the Church, the first to pay the price, would understand this and get moving," noted demographer Roberto Volpi, quoted in the newspaper Il Foglio.

Thus, lots of Rome's 900-plus churches will be empty in the next generation or so.

That was the context of remarks by Pope Francis during a recent Pontifical Council for Culture conference, a gathering with this sobering title: "Doesn't God dwell here any more? Decommissioning places of worship and integrated management of ecclesiastical cultural heritage."

Francis stressed: "The observation that many churches, which until a few years ago were necessary, are now no longer thus, due to a lack of faithful and clergy, or a different distribution of the population between cities and rural areas, should be welcomed in the Church not with anxiety, but as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt."

The church has problems, but there are "virtuous" ways to deal with them, he said. Bishops in Europe, North America and elsewhere are learning to cope.

"Decommissioning must not be first and only solution … nor must it be carried out with the scandal of the faithful. Should it become necessary, it should be inserted in the time of ordinary pastoral planning, be proceded by adequate information and be a shared decision" involving civic and church leaders, he said.

Pope Francis appears to be advising Catholics not to worry too much as "For sale" or even "Property condemned" signs appear on lots of sanctuaries in some parts of the world, said Phil Lawler, a conservative journalist with 35 years of experience in diocesan and independent Catholic publications.

"The sentence that triggered me was when the pope said we shouldn't be ANXIOUS about all of this," he said.

Serving the 'sad sisterhood' of those who have lost unborn children

Serving the 'sad sisterhood' of those who have lost unborn children

Priests who scan their flocks on Mother's Day will see lots of women smiling during the many blessings, hugs and kind words.

 But if they look closer, they will also see women who are trying not to cry. Some may be embracing their children, while struggling with memories of loss.

"We have not prepared our priests to handle the complex emotions that come with losing an unborn child," said Kara Palladino, founder of A Mom's Peace, a support network located in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington (Va.). "This is something we need to talk about. Many priests have no idea the magnitude of this loss and the challenges that come with it."

Seminaries prepare pastors to deal with many kinds of grief. Often, clergy can focus on memories of life together, even after an accident or illness that takes a child.

"A miscarriage is something different. We are dealing with the loss of something unknown. … This can lead to a silent pain that many mothers try to keep to themselves. When a woman loses an unborn child she becomes part of what we call 'the sad sisterhood,' " said Palladino. 

A Mom's Peace is rooted in Catholic teachings, but its all-volunteer team helps people of all faiths. Palladino and the group's other leaders call this a "lay apostolate" -- as opposed to a church-based ministry -- since so much of their work occurs in the secular world of hospitals, mortuaries, cemeteries and other institutions linked to death and dying.

It's impossible for clergy to avoid this issue. After all, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriages, according to Mayo Clinic statistics. Deaths that take place 20 weeks or more after conception are less common, but affect about 1 percent of pregnancies.

Palladino walked this path after losing her seventh child, Francis, who died in utero and she has lost three additional unborn children. She was stunned by how complicated, and expensive, it was to seek dignified burials for unborn children.

Trying to bring the rest of the 'Unbroken' story to the screen, altar call and all

Trying to bring the rest of the 'Unbroken' story to the screen, altar call and all

The lanky young evangelist from North Carolina was starting to attract media attention by the end of his 1949 tent revival in Los Angeles -- which means that professionals recorded his sermons.

So historians know exactly what the Rev. Billy Graham said during the sermons that changed Louis Zamperini's life. And because of author Laura Hillenbrand's 75-plus interviews with the Olympian and World War II bombardier, millions of readers know what happened inside his heart during the altar call.

In her 2010 bestseller "Unbroken," she wrote: "Why, Graham asked, is God silent when good men suffer? He began his answer by asking his audience to consider the evening sky. … 'I see the stars and can see the footprints of God. … I think to myself, my father, my heavenly father, hung them there with a flaming fingertip and holds them there with the power of his omnipotent hand … and he's not to busy running the whole universe to count the hairs on my head and see a sparrow when it falls, because God is interested in me.' "

Zamperini flashed back to his 47 days in a lifeboat after crashing in the Pacific, including the moment when he stared at the heavens and whispered: "If you will save me, I will serve you forever." Stunned, he tried to flee the tent, but Graham said: "You can leave while I'm preaching, but not now. … Every head bowed, every eye closed."

There's no way around the fact that this was the moment when Zamperini escaped his demons, said Matt Baer, producer of the 2014 movie "Unbroken" and of the new "Unbroken: Path to Redemption."

"At the end of the day, this is a true story," said Baer. Thus, they needed to show Graham in the pulpit and Zamperini on his knees, because "this was Lou's life. This was what happened. We had to show -- in a cinematic fashion -- that this is when his life changed."

This does, however, create a problem for a Hollywood moviemaker. The 2014 film directed by Angelina Jolie contained the camera-friendly scenes in which Zamperini competed in the Olympics, encountered Adolf Hitler, fought sharks in the Pacific and triumphed after brutal standoffs with prison-camp commander Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe.

The movie "Unbroken" ended with Zamperini coming home. That's where "Unbroken: Path to Redemption" begins, with a broken hero trying to wash away Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder nightmares with bottle after bottle of beer and whiskey.

Not a typical Sunday Mass: Listening to voices in the digital Catholic pews

Not a typical Sunday Mass: Listening to voices in the digital Catholic pews

It wasn't a normal Sunday in Catholic pulpits across America, as priests faced flocks touched by sorrow and rage after a sickening grand-jury report packed with X-rated details about decades of sexual abuse by clergy.

At St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur, Ga., Father Mark Horak said he half expected empty pews, but was thankful that the faithful came to Mass. He openly addressed the crisis and urged the laity to speak out.

"We should not be afraid to demand, of our leadership, fundamental reform," he said, wrapping up his homily, which was posted online. "Don't be afraid to demand it. But do it with love. Do it with love. Maybe with some anger mixed in -- but do it with love. Please."

But something extraordinary happened in another Mass that day, according to a wrenching series of Twitter posts by Susan B. Reynolds, a Catholic studies professor at the nearby Candler School of Theology. One of her research topics: Religious rites in the context of suffering.

Something happened down front at St. Thomas More after a similar sermon, with the same appeal for the laity to act.

"A dad stood up. 'HOW?' he pleaded. 'TELL US HOW.' His voice was shaking and determined and terrified. His collared shirt was matted to his back with sweat," wrote Reynolds. "Jaws dropped. My eyes filled with tears. … This is a big, middle of the road parish in a wealthyish Southeast college town. In such contexts it's hard to imagine a more subversive act than doing what that dad just did."

One parishioner muttered, "Sit down." But the priest listened, and this unusual dialogue continued for several minutes.

"I have a son," said the dad. "He's going to make his first communion. What am I supposed to tell him?"

Fires raging in American church: Catholics face hard choices after McCarrick scandal

Fires raging in American church: Catholics face hard choices after McCarrick scandal

Priests know what it's like to enter the pulpit facing scriptures that appear to have been torn from the headlines.

That happened just the other day, with news that one of America's most powerful Catholics -- retired Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. -- had been accused of the sexual abuse of boys, as well as decades of seminarians.

Days later the Sunday Mass lectionary featured the Prophet Jeremiah, speaking for Jehovah: "Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture."

That reminded Father John Hollowell of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis of even stronger words from St. John Chrysostom, the early church's most celebrated orator: "The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts."

Priests who took their vows during the clergy sexual abuse scandals a decade or so ago thought that they had heard it all, said Hollowell.

Now, with hellish reports about McCarrick the "wound in the church continues to be infected and it oozes with fresh pus. … Everyone says the same stuff -- that everybody knew, and nobody knew what to do about it, and nobody knew who to tell and there's a fresh trail of people discovered to have been destroyed by his crimes and his actions," he said, in a sermon posted online.

What happens now? While many powerful voices in the American church remained silent, or offered public-relations talk, several bishops in smaller dioceses wrote urgent letters to their flocks.

Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth (.pdf here) focused on this stunning fact: One of the men accusing McCarrick of years of abuse had been the first child he baptized after his ordination as a priest.


Lessons about faith and modern parenting, from heroes of the Czech resistance

Lessons about faith and modern parenting, from heroes of the Czech resistance

PRAGUE -- No matter what was happening outside their apartment walls, Kamila Bendova pulled her six children together every day and read to them for two hours or more.

It didn't matter if the Communists had imprisoned her husband -- the late Vaclav Benda, a leading Czech dissident and Catholic intellectual. It didn't matter that state officials had bugged their flat near the medieval heart of the city. It didn't matter if a friend showed up after being tortured at the secret police facility a block away.

The Benda family faithfully observed the rites that defined their lives inside its second-floor apartment, a site the Czech Republic has marked with a memorial plaque at sidewalk level. Every day, they prayed together, studied together and found ways to enjoy themselves -- while doing everything they could to show others there was more to life than the rules of a paranoid police state.

"I was never good at playing with the children, so I read to them. … That worked for me," quipped Bendova, who, like her husband, earned a doctorate in mathematics. Father Stepan Smolen, a Catholic priest close to the family, served as a translator during a recent meeting with Bendova and two of her adult children.

The family had plenty of books to read. The walls of the Benda apartment, where Kamila Bendova still lives, are lined -- from the floorboards to the high ceilings -- with bookshelves containing 10,000 books and snapshots of her 21 grandchildren. 

The Benda children were especially fond of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," for reasons the family considers obvious. They were the hobbits and, living in a totalitarian state, they knew that "Mordor was real," said Bendova.