When the Archdiocese of Chicago launched its Renew My Church campaign for diocesan renewal in 2016, the diocese reminded Chicago Catholics: God’s desire for the church is far more than physical buildings. Although changes—especially parish closures—are never easy, a mission over maintenance mentality is what Pope Francis has urged of our church, stating in Evangelii Gaudium (On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World) that Catholics must focus on evangelization rather than the church’s self-preservation.
In his vicariate, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago Joseph N. Perry says the situation of the church is not what it was a generation or two ago. “We’ve been faced with a necessary trimming down of the physical structure to match realistic numbers of the Catholic population today in the city and certain suburbs, in order to be able to afford the resources needed for doing ministry today,” Perry says.
Right now, Perry says the archdiocese’s campaign for renewal focuses on reorienting parishioners to “renewed discipleship” that will “ensure vitality, faith, practice, and outreach for years to come.”
Today, as the 2021–23 Synod of Bishops on synodality focuses on the themes of communion, participation, and mission, Catholics are again tasked with being open-minded about our ideas of church. In this conversation with U.S. Catholic, Perry offers advice on how we can all successfully work toward synodality, especially if we open our hearts to the “beauty of the church in all its variety.”
We have seen and heard stories of parishioners’ resistance to parish structural changes or parish closures. Do you have any advice to help parishioners accept the new way of being church?
Well, it’s never easy suggesting new ways of going about doing church, especially since we taught our people to own their parishes and to participate in their parishes. The parish church obviously is a spiritual extension of one’s domestic situation. It’s the place where people carry out their faith, preserve their culture, and practice their obligation.
There are emotional attachments to the customs of church life, and to be faced with change is difficult. Many of these changes are outside our competence or ability to influence. These changes are social, economic, political, and racial in origin. Yet if we remain in these sorts of silos our churches will close in on us. Inevitably, we run up against people’s preferences and biases. Parishes close because they have diminished to the point of no longer having a support base to keep them going.
I think this situation is similar to a family whose children have grown up and gone their own ways. They are no longer in a homestead, and the parent or parents realize they can no longer keep up the home and its expenses. They must shift to a smaller, affordable place to live in for the remainder of their lives. While it makes sense rationally, the emotions enter in and it takes time to adjust and appreciate what all is being attempted. Sometimes the kids themselves step up to state clearly and emphatically, “Mom and Dad, you can no longer afford this house. Get a smaller one, so you can live out your days comfortably and without stress.”
In your vicariate, along with many other dioceses, Black and other culturally specific parishes have been particularly affected by parish closures. Has this led to any particular pastoral challenges?
Yes, it has. Given the cultural definitions in different groups and what their customs are, people who come from other countries have a different relationship between government and the church, which impacts the affordability of being able to do church. These communities inherited cathedral- or basilica-sized worship spaces, seating a thousand or more people.
Notwithstanding their architectural splendor, which might be retained because of its testimony to architectural periods, these worship spaces have worked a strain on the church’s resources and therefore are simply not useful for doing church these days. A Sunday Mass where only about a hundred people attend in these beautiful edifices that seat a thousand does not offer the fullest sense of church. Not to mention parishes’ ability to maintain these edifices with their utilities, insurance, repair needs, and so forth. The associated cost doesn’t leave much else for ministry to youth, the elderly, catechists, liturgy, or missionary outreach.
Have the events of the past two years—movements for racial justice and the COVID-19 pandemic—affected people’s feelings about parish closings?
I have witnessed people’s feelings about parish closures going back to my young priestly days in Milwaukee, and that’s more than 40 years. For as long as I’ve been a priest and a bishop, churches have been closing. The emotions of folks attached to this experience are the same as they always have been, and I believe they would be the same without the death of George Floyd or the pandemic. Parish closures upset people, some more so than others. And any day at any time, any year within any circumstance, if anything, I think the consistency of racial tension in our communities and fears connected with the general health crisis can frighten or heighten people’s feelings of loss and their fears about the future.
Do you think recent racial justice movements have affected the pastoral effectiveness of documents on racism by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops?
The U.S. bishops have, to their credit, published 10 documents on issues of racial justice in this country since 1958. These statements have arisen out of unique events in the struggle of African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, in particular. These statements are grounded in scripture and Catholic moral and social teaching. Since the 1960s, church documents treating the manner of social justice and civil rights have rubbed up against various activist ideologies, such as the Black Power movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement of the new millennium. Church statements can stand on their own with a message of continuity, regardless of these social movements that come and go.
Are you concerned about the fact that the number of regular churchgoers has declined significantly since the pandemic? What do you see as the solution to this decline?
As long as COVID-19 and its contagion are around, I think our churches are going to see smaller numbers coming in person because of the serious implications of the virus, particularly for the elderly, people with certain conditions, and people without affordable access to health care. People are slowly coming back to church, but cautions are still ordered for gatherings of measurable size. Lately, I’ve heard a pastor talking about the reality of the virtual parish serving as an annex to the parish. We have to be creative.
How have the parishes you serve been involved in the synodal process?
We’ve begun the synod’s initial steps here in Chicago. Synodality, as the Holy Father describes it, echoes what we’ve been trying to do with the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Renew My Church program—bring people together to tap their wisdom and inclinations about church. The collaborative nature of life and ministry in a multiethnic, multicultural context for this new millennium is good for the whole process of synodality.
Do you think people are struggling with the call to synodality in any way?
I think we’re trying to get our hearts and our hands around it. And hopefully as the program goes forward, it will get a little bit sharper in focus and in feasibility for people. I think it points to many of the instincts that are going on right now in pastoral ministry in the church. That is, a sense of bringing people together and not operating out of these separate vantage points, silos, and areas of the city where people would choose not to get involved.
Do you have any advice for Catholics who are starting on this path of synodality?
I encourage them to throw themselves into it. There are many things that can come from it. The average diocese has no idea of what the portrait of the diocese looks like until it has some large diocesan celebration or worship moment where people can see all these different peoples, languages, and cultures. That’s because we are largely locked into our own local parish situation, which is good in and of itself. But there is also the other side of the coin: the beauty of the church in all its variety.
What do you hope will come out of the synodal process?
I hope for a stronger sense of the beauty of the whole church locally and universally. And for a deeper appreciation for the marvelous gifts of the church and the beauty of its many peoples. That’s what I hope.
Image: Archdiocese of Chicago