As controversial as I am allowed to get...

[After some thought and debate, I've decided to reinstate the comments. I reckon that if anonymous posters want to make ludicrous accusations, I'll let them]

A friend forwarded a column written by Regina Brett of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I include the text:

How far can church downsize?
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Regina Brett
Plain Dealer Columnist

Regionalism has hit the Catholic Church.

You've heard of cities sharing fire trucks, water and taxes?

How do you share Midnight Mass, choirs and church bulletins?

Alternate years for Midnight Mass? Borrow the choir every other Sunday?

Print one side of the bulletin for St. Malachi and the flip side for St. Patrick's?

Like it or not, full-service parishes will soon perish.

All 231 parishes in the Cleveland Diocese will soon change. The diocese will organize all parishes into groups that will share resources and priests.

I can see the bishop flipping through a thesaurus to find the right word to describe what he will do with the churches to combat the dwindling priesthood.

Hmm. Let's see . . . Reorganize. Reconfigure. Reconstitute. Merge. Consolidate. Collaborate. Cluster.

That's it.

Cluster sounds much better than Share A Priest, which is what clustering amounts to. It also sounds better than closing churches, which is bound to happen next.

We should've seen it coming. The trend has swept the nation as fewer men join the priesthood and more priests die and retire.

I still remember the letter from the bishop more than a decade ago addressing the shortage of priests. Our pastor read the letter and said we were to have meetings and talk about how to get along with fewer priests.

When he told us we were not allowed, however, to discuss the issue of married priests or women priests, you could feel a breeze as heads shook collectively in disgust.

We all knew there was a solution. Actually two of them:

Women priests.

Married priests.

End of shortage.

Unfortunately, every pope is deaf in one ear and can't hear out of the other when it comes to ordaining women and married clergy.

Protestant churches use the same Bible, yet they ordain married priests and many of them ordain women.

Fewer priests mean fewer services. We all know that.

It means the folks who paid for the pews and sat in the same one every day for 7 a.m. Mass won't receive communion from the priest once they end up in the nursing home.

It means the engaged woman who was baptized, who celebrated her first communion and confirmation in one church might not get married there because the church is down to one matrimony a week.

It means the troubled soul who lost God can no longer knock on a rectory door and confide in a priest before doing something desperate to find God.

But who knows, it could be part of the master plan.

Maybe in time, we'll end up where we started: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20)

Maybe we never were supposed to depend upon a hierarchy of celibate men.

After all, Jesus promised a comforter, the Holy Spirit, to guide us. He didn't mention popes and bishops and priests.

He kept it simple. As simple as it gets: Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. Love one another as I have loved you.

The original church wasn't a building. It wasn't a hierarchy. Just people. Two or three, breaking bread.

I guess you could call that a cluster.




As some of you know, blogging Jesuits are to avoid hot-button issues. I feel no need to rehearse the various arguments, pro and con, concerning the male-only priesthood. What I do feel inclined toward is just offering a few thoughts concerning her sentiments:

1. Her argument seems to presuppose that the shortage of priests is the exclusive reason for the clustering. She fails to mention that there are many parishes that are unable to sustain the parish based on its numbers. On Fulton Road, in Regina's own Cleveland, there were two enormous churches built decades ago to accommodate the then-booming Irish and Italian immigrant populations. As these immigrants aged and moved away, the size of the parishes shrunk and these churches were unable to sustain services/programs, leading to church closings.

2. I'm all for nostalgia and tradition. Yet, her appeal to emotion is just glaring: the church building as marriage locale isn't a great reason to keep churches open. Even if we had an excess of priests right now, unless we had the congregations to sustain and support them, it would be utterly foolish to keep some waning parishes running.

3. Her column is a public temper tantrum: complete with a Burger King mentality of "my way, right away." It does not become her. It is true that fewer priests will probably mean that Father won't be able to visit every parishioner in every nursing every week. Or month. But her allusion to a church of "just people. Two or three, breaking bread" seems to suggest that she'd like to see greater participation of the laity in the life of the church. But, if that's the case, why is it so necessary that the it be the priest who brings communion? If "WE" are the church, then shouldn't we step forward as church and minister to one another?

4. Unrealistic. The "priest shortage" is a symptom of a much larger problem, what that far outstrips her facile solution of ordaining "women priests and married priests." Again, I'm not arguing for or against this, but really, Regina, look around. The schism in the Episcopal church concerning the ordination of women/gays should certainly be a reason to tread most carefully. A recent article in the New York Times indicates that even Protestant denominations are having a hard time staffing their churches - their seminarians can find work in other venues (non-ordained ministry, business, education, etc.).

Parish mergers are not, as far as I can tell, a major problem. Yes, there is the pain and grief associated with the loss of someone/something important to you. But I often get the feeling that the "church" as parish has supplanted the Church; there is certainly a temptation to idolatry. Pooling resources and priests eases the burden on already-stretched pastors, perhaps freeing them TO PASTOR rather than administer a parish. Instead of worrying about making mortgage payments, the priests in these 'clustered' parishes might have time to spend with one another and with their parishioners doing what they signed on for in the first place: pastoring the flock.

I think Regina Brett has a benighted vision of reality. Even if she were writing on behalf of *every* American Catholic, she would still represent but 6% of the Roman Catholic Church. The tone of her conclusion about the simplicity of Jesus' message reduces Christianity to little more than collection of do-gooders: so why am I a Christian when I could be in the Elk's Club or a Shriner?

It's because that in Jesus I have met God most fully. In my confession of Jesus as the Christ of God, I am called to live out this confession in the world. This draws me into communion with others, women and men who pray with and for me, who also confess with me that Jesus is Lord. We don't gather together, do good things, and then break bread and *WHAMO* there's Jesus. We are part of a much larger and still-unfolding story of a pilgrim people nourished by Christ's own body and blood, who derive strength and sustenance from it, and continue in their labors to help bring about God's Kingdom. The Eucharist is the source and the end-point of our labors. Nourished on his own body and in response to the love I have known, I go out into the world where I struggle to "feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. Love one another as I have loved you." And I fail. And I return again to the table of the Lord. And I try again. And again.

No, Jesus did not mention priests and bishops. But as a human institution intending to pass down the gospel, to re-create and re-member the Christ in history, they are necessary as teachers and promoters and safeguards.

My fear is that Regina would have the entire church conform to her will. This might well be her image of perfection. A church built around Regina Brett, and not the Christ who continues to invite people to "come and see," is, however, anything but my image of heaven.
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