St. Joseph’s Catholic Church (Image: Grimes)
There are approximately 20,000 Roman Catholic parishes in the United States. In my early assignments as a priest, I traveled so much for the Church that I sometimes think that I have seen about half of them. They reflect every possible variation in architecture and design, size, location and neighborhood but there is something wonderful and mysterious about each and every one of them. I regret that the tradition that was strong when I was a kid seems to have gradually been lost and that is as you drive or walk in front of a church you bow your head and bless yourself with the sign of the cross. Why? Because we believe that on the other side of those doors Jesus of Nazareth is truly present in a very special way.
The parish is not a set of buildings. It is rather a community of faith and we live out our faith in many ways but most especially by those awesome moments of spirituality where we are touched, in contact with, close to and aided by the real presence of Jesus of Nazareth. At baptism, we are made his adopted brothers and sisters. At the Eucharist, we receive him as the nourishment for our souls as we continue our journey towards salvation. At the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are lifted from our knees and told to go forward with confidence. When we marry the bond is not established merely by affection or by the law of the State of Texas but a bond is permanently made by our common faith in our Divine Lord. Finally, when the journey is over those who share our faith gather for the Last Anointing and they lift our lives, with all of its triumphs and defeats, towards God and present our life to him from whence we came and our salvation is at hand.
Yes, when we pass a church we should not be confused by the architecture. The building profoundly symbolizes the faith that brought it into existence – faith that is real, profound and calls for reverence.
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One of the signs of growing old is that you seem to experience more and more anniversaries passing by. I frequently mention in this space the importance of the Second Vatican Council which has now passed its 50th anniversary. I was disappointed that so little was done to mark the 25th anniversary of the marvelous statement by the American bishops on economic justice. Why did we let it’s anniversary slip by so quietly?
It has been 50 years since an extraordinary black pastor awakened the conscience of religious leaders all over the country when he took the white clergy of the South so forcefully to task. They were upset with his demonstrations and they wrote him a letter while he was locked up in the Birmigham jail suggesting that he find other ways than the demonstrations and protests that he was conducting against the extraordinary cruelty, injustice and prejudice of the South. This included many Protestant pastors, a rabbi and even a Catholic bishop told him that his demonstrations in terms of human dignity, human rights and black freedom was “unwise and untimely.”
Unwise and untimely! How pathetic, how weak, how frightened. The clergy were 100% off target. Selma was very near and the 1964 Civil Rights Act would never have happened except for the vision and the leadership of Martin Luther King and the patience and courage of the black community. While the U.S. bishops ignored the 25th anniversary of “Economic Justice for All”, I am happy to see that a group of white Alabama clergymen got together to sign a response on King’s letter. It was fifty years later but it was a wonderful thing to do. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville stressed the importance in responding to King’s words by “asking for forgiveness for past wrongs, appreciating efforts that have been made and being resolved for more action.”
Memories are extraordinarily important and we must really struggle to remember the courage and heroism of those who have gone before us. A whole generation of young people has come along who know virtually nothing of Martin Luther King. They are not concerned about the fact that he is one of the most important American figures in the 20th century. Because of his vision, his courage and ultimately his martyrdom the United States was able to make a dramatic change, an important turn and be prepared to move into the 21st century. Let’s work to remember all of our heroes.
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Parish secretaries are recent additions to the pastoral team. When I was ordained in 1956, there was not a single paid secretary working for one of Houston’s parishes. Now, it is impossible to conceive of a parish functioning without one and maybe several. Secretaries are an important part of the spiritual team leading the parish. When a person is distraught, sick, approaching death, or beset by any other countless problems that cause people to turn to the Church (they are really turning to Jesus) the first contact is frequently the parish secretary. The secretary’s attitude at this point is crucial. Kindness, sensitivity and patience with people who are not familiar with routine procedures makes all the difference in the world and the effectiveness of that parish for that person at that particular moment. I think that most secretaries do a fairly good job but regretfully we have some who think that their main role in the office is to protect the pastor from the people. Where those situations exist, I think the pastor should be fired and the secretary retrained!
Let’s pray that all secretaries see beyond their business skills and their technical competence and realize that God wants to use them in bringing Jesus into the lives of people who call or come to the office unexpectedly. Once again, most parish secretaries do great work but when they fail, spiritual pain is generated.
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The large, urban parishes have seen a tremendous expansion in staff over the last 30 years. When I was newly ordained, the word “staff” would not have even been mentioned. My home parish had three priests, eight religious sisters and a janitor! Now parishes employ dedicated lay people to carry out important ministries in education, liturgy, finance and social ministry. The Catholic Church is not into megachurches, yet in larger parishes it does utilize a sizable number of lay people helping to form the community, serve it effectively and lead it forward.
Despite all these wonderful ministerial skills being utilized by the laity today, the priest is still crucial for an effective ministry and yet, where are the priests?
Let’s take a look at some frightening statistics.
In 1962, at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church in the United States had about 40 million members. Those members were served by about 65,000 ordained priests. Today, there are approximately 68 million Roman Catholics in our country and they are served by 41,000 priests. In other words, we have increased the number of Catholics by 50% and cut the number of clergy almost in half. All across the country, you see parishes going from three priests to one priest, and now, in some sad cases, from one priest to no priest.
Throughout all of my priesthood, I have felt that I knew many men who would love to serve as religious leaders in the life of the Church. When the diaconate opened up to married men, there was an explosion and today we have nearly 20,000 deacons in the country. They are a great help but not the solution. What is the solution? You figure.
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