Some church groups are pressing for a post-pandemic opening up, others, who have already opened up, are sounding a lament as they find it is not business as usual. There are signs of grieving for the parish – an institution on its knees.
World War II changed Western history. The post-war Catholic parish was an institutional wonder. It took off with the baby boom, reached its peak in the 1980s, started its decline in the 1990s and may well be mortally wounded by the COVID epidemic in the 2020s.
The parish of my wartime infancy appeared timeless. It was an identifiable part of the wider culture but, for Catholics, it was a mainstay of life. Baptisms, marriages and funerals happened there. Most Catholics started formal schooling there. That is where you ritualised being a Catholic. Lifelong personal and family friends were made. It had its social oddities such as not eating meat on Friday, the practice of confession and regular Sunday Mass. Adherence was tribal.
Post-war reconstruction for Catholics brought new vitality to the parish. With population growth came new parishes and schools. The baby boom brought not only a large new generation of members but increased vitality and vision to the whole of society. The times – they were a changin.
Vatican II was in tune with that change. The fortress church lowered its drawbridge and out streamed the People of God on a march towards establishing a new Kingdom of God – a new world order marked by identification with the hopes and joys, the griefs and anxieties of all, mutual respect, the discarding of bygone enmities, diminished sectarianism an improved life for everybody and a fairer society.
Parishes implemented that new vision. The laity moved into active mode. There were youth groups, senior citizens groups, social justice groups, parent groups, social groups sporting groups. And all had their formal coming together in the parish liturgy which, while led by clergy, was no longer a clerical preserve, and was in a language all could embrace and understand.
Lay action and leadership became a top policy in the renewed Church – especially with the youth. The Young Christian Worker movement (YCW) formed a whole generation to see, judge and act. Loads of young priests who were mentors of this movement.
The parish was a scene of action and vitality.
But an undertow was forming under this enthusiasm. Paul VI went along with the awakening vision but was still a product of the Ancien Regime of Christendom and a lifetime operative of its clerical bureaucracy. He feared that the new enthusiasm would get out of hand. So, he put on the brakes. He re-affirmed priestly celibacy and condemned contraception. His technique of moderating the exuberance was by appointing conservative bishops.
Ten years later, Restoration became the official church policy with the election of John Paul II.
By the end of the 1980s fault lines started to show in the church. You noticed them in the parish. The earliest pointer was a drop in Mass attendance and affiliation. Adult parishioners in their day had found their social life in the parish. But, now, the new generation found their social stimulus in a wider world. Once they reached adulthood, they dropped Mass. No longer compelled to set an example, their parents started to drift away themselves.
As society became more secular, the Church hierarchy grew more rule-insistent and less pastoral. Rather than re-discovering the core of the Jesus message and recontextualizing it, the hierarchy, supported by revisionist Catholics, chose to stick more tightly to their guns only to be left irrelevant and increasingly alone. The bishop in mitre and crosier – once an image of authority – became a curio from the past.
The numbers tell the tale. Already by the time the pandemic hit, Mass attendance had dropped to about 10%. Catholic school enrolments are not as solid. Locally born clergy are dying out. Foreign priests are struggling. Parishes are being closed or amalgamated. The ranks of committed supporters are ever thinning. The institutional decline is clear to all.
And now COVID lockdowns have hit. Large areas have not had a church gathering for months. Where religious gatherings have been resumed, only a fraction of the former congregations seem to have come back. Social distancing results in unrecognisable liturgies. It’s not the way it used to be.
At a practical level, income has dropped – perilously – and with no signs of reversal. There is a critical level of income below which you cannot run a parish.
The institutional parish as we knew it is on its knees. Hence the grieving for lost glory days. Mind you, it is an institution that is being mourned – not the central vision articulated by Vatican II. The church as institution is in trouble but not the church as the People of God.
All institutions rise and fall. Visions endure and can find new institution vehicles. There are millions of true believers out there. They just find the current institution not fit for purpose.
What is the shape of future Christianity?
Synods and regional councils are institutional attempts to address the challenge.
A German synodal assembly seems to be making progress. the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMENCE) is doing its own soul searching on the problem. An Australian Plenary Council is in preparation but getting mixed support. Some, including many bishops, don’t want it. Others, browned off by past efforts which went nowhere, are cynical.
One hopeful sign is the emergence of small groups of well-informed Catholics with church renewal as their shared objective. They are not well received by the institutional leadership but are persistent in their wish to re-invigorate Catholic Christianity. They are active in synod and council preparations but do not rely on them for their future. Groups of them meet regularly to remember and celebrate the Lord as the first followers did.
The institutional parish may have run its course, but the Christian spark is not extinguished. It is just taking new forms.
Eric Hodgens is a Catholic priest of Melbourne living in retirement.