One of the most painful realities that faithful churchgoers can experience is the closing of their church. We have witnessed in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and other places the consolidation of various parishes caused by a population shift from the city to the suburbs, fewer priests to serve in these various parishes, and the devastation created by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
When a church is closed or merged with another parish, a huge loss occurs.
We are the family of God, the body of Christ. We celebrate who we are in a building that becomes our meeting place, our home.
The church building is a holy place where parishioners gathered to celebrate the Eucharist, to worship our loving God, to have their children and grandchildren baptized, to receive our Lord in the Eucharist, to celebrate their exchange of vows in a wedding ceremony before God and God’s family, and where loved ones are honored, celebrated and mourned at funerals.
The church building is therefore a place housing memories, sometimes going back 50, 100, or in the case of St. Henry Church in New Orleans, 150 years. The greatest loss, however, is the destruction of that community of faith.
People who have gathered weekly to celebrate the Eucharist, whose bonds have grown over the years by their fellowship at church and at other parish functions have to merge with another congregation unknown to them.
The pain can be great and immeasurable.
The prospect for more native priests in the future does not look very bright. We draw from an extremely narrow pool of potential candidates for the priesthood by requiring that they be single males, willing to commit to lifelong celibacy.
Our culture does not support the kind of sacrifice that this entails. For me, the ordained priesthood has been an incredible blessing, allowing me to exercise leadership in the church, touching the lives of countless people, and developing lay leadership in the church.
We can only pray that more of our young people would see the priesthood as an exciting and challenging vocation for them as well.
The influx of foreign priests has been a blessing for our area but it is not a long-term solution. We have seen what has happened to the Irish Church that used to send missionaries throughout the world.
Now, they have a priest shortage.
Psalm 23 is an appropriate prayer for those parishioners facing closure: “Although I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.”
We need to join our fellow Christians who are hurting so much over these closings by saying this prayer with them.
We are all walking in this dark valley, not knowing what the future holds.
The good news is that the Risen Lord is walking at our side, constantly promising us resurrection and new life. We believe that God can make a way out of this gloomy situation.
Those parishes that are merging have the possibility of forming new, larger, more powerful, more resourceful communities of faith. Distinctions and differences have to melt away to enrich and empower these new communities of faith. With God, all things are possible.
For those of us who are not directly affected, we need to both treasure what we have and reach out in healing and support to those who are hurting. We must gather faithfully each weekend and not take our membership for granted. We must support the financial needs of our parish, giving generously and lovingly. We need to be willing to serve in parish ministries to help build up our parish family. We must be Christ for others.