At 11 a.m. today, it was announced by the Archdiocese that 4 parishes in the Terre Haute Deanery will be closing over the next 18 months. The parishes to be closed are St. Joseph's, St. Ann's, St. Leonard's, and Holy Rosary.
First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers go out to all the Catholics of Terre Haute - as the Archbishop noted, “The decision to close a parish is agonizing” - and for those living in the midst of such a thing the experience will be, at least for some, even more excruciating.
There are details on the internet for those interested in how the process will take place, but it is quite evident that a TON of work has been put into this by many faithful people in the deanery (and the larger Archdiocese) - and a lot of people are committing to challenging work moving forward.
Parish closings are a reality for many dioceses across the country. Several years ago, the Cleveland Diocese did a massive restructuring, closing 50 parishes at once. The closing of parishes is sometimes seemless, but for some parishes, it has gotten ugly. Canon Law is tricky with regards to parish closings because parishes do have some canonical recourse if they want to protest. In Cleveland, for example, some parishes supposedly appealed to Rome, and one parish simply broke from the Catholic Church all together (which, unfortunately, has happened in other dioceses as well).
Nationally (and probably locally now as well) the read on these closings is often overly-simplistic, if not missing the mark all together. Are there less priests than in 1950 - absolutely - however, we have to ask ourselves if we did not have more priests than we needed in those days. You can never technically have more than you need - but a priest friend of mine, at one of his three country parishes, has about 100 families. It is quite clear from his rectory there that there used to be 2-3 priests living there who only cared for THAT parish! That is pretty unbelievable - can the ministry to Catholics in the area endure without three priests there - absolutely - as my friend and other priests have demonstrated there through the years.
Could we use more priests - absolutely obviously yes. However, is the closing of parishes a sign that the Church is dead or dying - no.
Some of the things that affect the closing of parishes besides the number of priests would include the following:
1. Shifting populations - everyone knows of the flight to the suburbs, but the media often forgets to factor that in when they are writing their "obituary of the Catholic Church in the U.S." In downtown Indianapolis, we have the Cathedral, St. John's, St. Mary's, St. Josephs, Sacred Heart, St. Anthony's, Holy Angels, Holy Cross, St. Rita's, and Holy Rosary. How many Catholics now live downtown? Whatever the number, it is probably not the case that we need 10 Churches in the immediate downtown area anymore as the Churches were built when most of the city lived in the area of those Churches. Or maybe those Churches will all be kept as people start to move BACK into the downtown area? I know there are many competent people studying all of this - but the point of mentioning this here is that sometimes parishes close because the population shifts - not because the Catholic Church is dying out.
2. Means of transportation continue to improve - when most of the Churches were built in downtown Indianapolis again (not to focus there, but it provides a nice illustrator) there was no way to get to Church other than on foot or horseback. The distance of a mile and half meant a lot more in the 1800's. Now that we have cars and public transportation we can ask the question of whether or not parishes that are a mile and a half apart are both needed. 1.5 miles means an extra 4 minutes of driving - whereas on foot it was probably close to an hour.
This can even be said of parishes that might be 10 or 20 miles apart. In rural areas, do we need two sets of administration to run two parishes, when it would be a very minimal sacrifice for folks to drive an extra 10 minutes on Sunday?
The closing of parishes is a process that no one wants to go through; some Churches have been almost another member of the family going back for many generations. Nonetheless, despite the pain, we shouldn't listen to those who will say that the closing of a particular Church building hails the end of the Catholic Church in our Country. May God be with our Catholic brothers and sisters in Terre Haute during this time of transition!