THE BLOG
06/17/2013 04:15 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2013

Catholic Church Closures in Philadelphia

The announcement that some 27 parishes would be affected by closings or mergers within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was immense news, and the photograph of Archbishop Chaput and his aides accompanying the article clearly showed the pain of that decision.

The reaction of parishioners from the merged parishes, like Fishtown's Saint Laurentius, was predictable. "We are the church and our voice needs to be respected and heard," one woman stated. Another parishioner, speaking of her parish church, commented, "Here is where I want to go," while yet another person told a reporter, "Never once have I questioned my faith until now," before backtracking and correcting that thought to mean not the faith per se but the people in charge of administrating the faith.

In 2012, the Catholic News Agency reported that the Ascension of Our Lord parish in Philly's Harrowgate section would close because of low attendance. The archdiocese this year cited the same reason for the 2013 closures as well as Catholic population demographic shifts and the expense of having multiple Catholic churches within a small area.

Sadly, the world is teetering on the brink of a complete financial collapse. In Washington there is serious talk about getting rid of food stamps. Within ten years' time, most financial programs for the poor will have been eliminated. Many experts see the United States following the situation in Greece or Cyprus, or what life was like in the 1890s during America's Gilded Age. That's when there was no middle class, only the very rich on one side and the very poor on the other.

This brings us back to the financial value of having two and three parishes within a ten or fifteen block radius of one another. Sometimes all business decisions -- even from Church administrators whom you'd expect to have a higher regard for people's feelings regarding their attachment to buildings or cherished childhood memories -- have an ugly cutthroat quality, sort of like Genghis Khan riding into town slashing this steeple and that with his fiery sword.

The archdiocese maintains that low Mass attendance is one of the major reasons behind these closures and mergers. Low Mass attendance, of course, results in less money to keep a parish going. If 50 percent of the parishioners of a particular parish only go to Mass at Christmas and Easter, you can pretty much predict trouble down the line. I am not saying that this was the situation at Saint Laurentius. In fact, according to A.J. Thomson's remarks in last week's Spirit, this is not the case at all, but what about other parishes? Certainly there must be some truth in what the archdiocese is saying about low Mass attendance.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Catholic Mass attendance at every parish in the nation was at an all-time high. In my own childhood suburban parish, Saints Philip and James in Exton, there were five packed Masses every Sunday. On holy days, Christmas and Easter it was standing room only. In those days people went to church on a regular basis, and when it came time for the collection, people willingly contributed money.

While it may not be ideal to force anybody to go to church, before 1965 the Catholic Church was clever in suggesting that if you missed Mass for no good reason, you were inviting a little stain on your soul. Perhaps this guilt technique worked to bring many to church; perhaps not. But the "little stain on your soul" tactic worked to fill the churches and the collection plates.

By the mid-1970s many church rules and rituals were relaxed in the name of modernity and convenience. Nuns ditched their habits; parishes turned the altar around and in some cases threw out marble altar rails or covered colorful mosaics with white paint. This was a time when well-meaning liturgists were trying to make the Mass hip and not so old-fashioned in order to attract even larger congregations. I recall what happened at Fishtown's Holy Name of Jesus Parish, when it was wrecked by a well-meaning Dominican friar between the years 1971 and 1973.

Officially founded in February 1905 in a three-story building on Frankford Avenue, ground was broken for the present-day church in the fall of 1921. Holy Name's architectural makeover in the 1970s was the brainchild of Father Edward L. Martin, O.P., who felt that many of the traditional trappings had to go. Like so many other pastors around the country, the good priest was a victim of the "simplifying" frenzy that followed the Council.

"They cut off the principal altar, the high altar. They put in a butcher block in the center of the church and a crucifix hanging from the ceiling. The Dominicans also took the whole altar rail out. The sanctuary was carpeted. This kind of carpeting buckles over time, so it was pretty much a mess in 1998 when a new pastor took over," Holy Name's then-pastor Father Francis P. Groarke told me some time ago.

The Dominicans, thankfully, did not remove the church's side altars, and left the old wooden statues in place, a generous move considering the fate of other churches, where side altars wound up in piles on various city trash heaps. Also left untouched were devotional shrines to the Infant of Prague and Saint Jude.

"When the Dominicans left in 1998, they took everything, even the silverware," Father Groarke joked with me then.

"The pastor who took over tried to restore the church to the way it was. He got rid of the butcher block. He had a platform built and he got an altar from a church that closed in Philadelphia in 1999. The high altar is once again visible," Father Groarke said, adding, "This pastor also had the tabernacle redone. The church was painted, and he got rid of that big hanging crucifix. Ceramic tile was added to the sanctuary, so it is pretty much a warm welcoming place now. The pastor was complimented an awful lot for what he did, although the church was not returned to the pre-1972 experience, when there was an altar rail. There's no altar rail at Holy Name."

No doubt some people left Holy Name and a lot of other churches as well during the simplifying craze. But does this answer the question: When, and how, did Catholics stop going to Mass?

I think it started when the archdiocese allowed Saturday night Mass. That's when Sunday became just another day. Something about this switch made a lot of people stop going to Mass altogether. If you talk to so-called progressive Catholics, they might tell you that many Catholics aren't going to Mass because they want a complete doctrinal overhaul: they want married clergy (which would be good), women priests, and a radical tune-up of traditional Catholic doctrines. "In the modern era," they say, "people have no time for an antiquated Church, but if the Church went ahead and updated itself, parishes would be filled to capacity."

This view fails to address the puzzling reality that the religions and churches seeing the most converts today, such as Islam, the Mormon Church and Eastern Orthodoxy, are hardly swinging denominations that merge with modern culture but which tend to go against it.

Other observers theorize that Catholics have stopped going to Mass because of the clergy sex abuse crises.

To me, a church filled with only saints is not a church you would ever find on earth. The Orthodox Church, for instance, has a saying that it is "a hospital for sinners", which I think is an apt description of the Catholic Church as well. Think about it: Do American citizens give up their citizenship and move to a foreign country because of a corrupt Congress or a few bad presidents? Generally speaking, no; why then should Catholics opt to not go to Mass because a priest, who is not a saint but a fallible fallen man just like the rest of us, disappoints us in the worst way?