Growing Concerns

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

1/21/99

 

Growing Concerns

 

            We are building a new church in our parish.  Actually it is not an entirely new one.  We are expanding the existing facility, but it will be more than double our worship space and will have amenities we do not currently have in our tiny "chapel of ease," such as a baptismal font.

            The fact that our parish is building is not unusual these days.  Across the country many parishes are undertaking building programs for the first time in a long time. There is a significant building boom going on in some dioceses.

In the Archdiocese of Washington we have 30 construction projects, costing over a half-million dollars each, going on at the present time.  The church is doing more construction now than anytime since the 1950s.  It is not just churches.  We are even building and expanding schools again.  In the last five years two new schools have opened in the Archdiocese of Washington and several more have been expanded.

            The reason for all this building is both demographic and  geographic.

The demographics are the biggest reason.  We are growing.  Nationwide we have more Catholics than ever.   We are now more than 60 million souls.  The population is still growing through births and conversions.   Moreover, the children of the baby-boomers long delayed marriages are now in school.  The arrival of many Hispanic immigrants during the last 20 years has increased the number of parishioners.  A mini religious revival in the 1990s has meant slightly more active congregations.  Another factor is the reduced number of priests.  With larger congregations and fewer priests we need larger churches to accommodate everyone.  In some dioceses there is now a policy that parishes must build churches large enough so that one priest can celebrate no more than three Sunday masses and still get everyone in.  The days of having a dozen Sunday masses, like they did at some parishes in Washington in the 1960s, are over.  We don't have the clergy.

The geographic shift is also significant.  In the 1950s most Catholics lived in central cities, mostly on the two coasts and in northern states.  In the last 50 years there has been huge migration south and to exurbia.  States like North Carolina, that once had fewer Catholics than some Arabian Emirates, now have exploding Catholic congregations.  Charlotte, North Carolina, is now one of the fastest growing dioceses in the nation.

Parishes like mine, on the fringe between rural and suburban America are also part of the geographic trend.   Catholics, like everybody else, are following the job shift to place that were once rural.  "Fringe" areas like where I live, 50 miles from downtown Washington, are exploding with new people.

The giant infrastructure that the church built in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the city centers  is under utilized. This is not the white flight of the 60s.  This is more the technology drift of the new millenium, where cars and computers mean that jobs and houses can be anywhere.

For us in our parish, this means more than just the technical problems.  There are spiritual and moral problems involved too.  These touch every parish that is building for the future.

Questions like:

How do we treat people fairly who may be displaced by the building programs?

How do we preserve continuity with the past while building a new spiritual home?

How do we provide for our needs without forgetting the poor and our social responsibilities?

How do we preserve a sense of community and intimacy as we expand to accommodate everyone?

The church is not like any other builder.  Our projects are moral and spiritual statements.  Making them the right kind of statement is as big a challenge.  Just as big as the bricks and mortar.