What to do with a disused church

— A quiet sign of Catholic surrender in the UK

In the face of damning demographic shifts, churches are closing down en masse. Has the Catholic Church given up the fight?

by Jonathan MS Pearce

Near my home in suburban UK sits a Catholic church attached to a primary school. Although we are less religious than our American cousins, who are themselves secular, our education system is still hugely under the influence of religion. About 37% of primary schools are faith schools.

For just under a decade, the church on a small plot next to the school was used not as a church but as storage for diocesan documents. Now it is just gathering dust and weeds.

The diocese sees two choices: it will be gutted for some kind of diocesan offices, or it will be sold off as land to make a pretty penny.

This is not at all unusual.

A recent survey run by an evangelical organization found that while just under half of the UK population say they are Christian, only 6% profess to be practicing, a significant decline in a few generations. As a result, over 2,000 churches have closed over the last decade. A Church of England report recently found that up to 368 churches could be at risk for closure in the next two to five years.

As a ramification of this demographic shift, dioceses are being forced to merge parishes, calculating which are the best choices of churches to close, and which to keep running with ever-decreasing congregations.

But what interests me is the practicality of these decisions running against what the Catholic Church, or any such Christian church organization, should be doing.

Far be it from me to exhort this to a religious organization, but shouldn’t churches be seeking to increase the size of their flocks? Have churches just given up in light of dwindling numbers? I ask because, for many of the remaining Christians, the collateral of them not succeeding in growing their flock is a growing flock burning in hell (or some such outcome).

A few years ago, the school to which the church is attached reduced its PAN—the number of children it accepts each year—for practical purposes from 40 to 30. To do this, they had to apply to the diocese for permission. The diocese accepted without any pushback.

Again, surely the desire of the diocese should be to grow their adherents. This should be everything they are about. Instead, the priests are more obsessed with stoking up culture wars than welcoming people to their fold.

If that land is sold, a few quick bucks are made. So what? Unless that is paying for a strategy to grow the church, then it is all just delaying the inevitable. And if the Church does grow again in the local area, they have lost that land and that building and would face much greater costs to build a new one.

Surely the desire of the diocese should be to grow their adherents. This should be everything they are about. Instead, the priests lean into culture war.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to work in the diocesan offices or in the clergy, but it must evoke the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s a dying institution, at least in the UK, and everyone from within the organization is resigned to this fact.

Perhaps the Catholic Church is just positioning itself into a much humbler corner of UK society, receding in size until it reaches a comfortable irrelevancy.

As the Jesuit priest famously quipped, give me a boy of seven and I will give you a man. I can’t help but think, from a marketing point of view (and as much as I vehemently disagree with the religio-politics of this), that the diocese should be working extra hard to increase faith school intakes. Converting adults to Catholicism en masse is a ridiculous pipe dream in this era. Instead, ring-fencing groups of children to indoctrination is undoubtedly one of their best options.

Instead, the Catholic Church would rather sit back and grow weeds, either looking to other parts of the world for growth or being resigned to seeing their pews inexorably empty and their vestibules gather cobwebs.

Given the left hook from the constant slew of sex abuse scandals and the repetitive jabs from science and culture in a society that has moved on, I can’t help but think that they’ve given up the fight.

Complete Article HERE!

Catholic nuns lift veil on abuse in convents

By Philip Pullella

When young nuns at a convent in Eastern Europe told their Mother Superior that a priest had tried to molest them, she retorted that it was probably their fault for “provoking him.”

When African nuns in Minnesota asked why it was always they who had to shovel snow they were told it was because they were young and strong, even though white sisters of the same age lived there too.

As the Roman Catholic Church pays more attention to the closed world of convents, where women spend much of their time in prayer and household work, more episodes of psychological, emotional and physical abuse are coming to light.

A new book, “Veil of Silence” by Salvatore Cernuzio, a journalist for the Vatican’s online outlet, Vatican News, is the latest expose to come from within and approved by authorities.

Cernuzio recounts experiences of 11 women and their struggles with an age-old system where the Mother Superior and older nuns demand total obedience, in some cases resulting in acts of cruelty and humiliation.

Marcela, a South American woman who joined an order of cloistered nuns in Italy 20 years ago when she was 19, recounts how the indoctrination was so strict that younger sisters needed permission to go to the bathroom and ask for sanitary products during their menstrual periods.

“You are always complaining! Do you want to be a saint or not?” Marcela, who later left the convent, quotes the Mother Superior as shouting when she suggested changes in the daily routine.

Therese, a French woman, was told “you have to suffer for Jesus” when she asked to be spared physically demanding chores because of a back condition.

“I understood that we were all like dogs,” recounted Elizabeth, an Australian. “They tell us to sit and we sit, to get up and we get up, to roll over and we roll over.”

BURNOUT SYNDROME

Last year, Father Giovanni Cucci wrote a landmark article about abuse in convents in the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica, whose texts are approved by the Vatican.

He found that most of it was abuse of power, including episodes of racism such as in the Minnesota convent. Cucci said the problem needed more attention because it had been overshadowed by the sexual abuse of children by priests.

In 2018, the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano exposed the plight of foreign nuns sent by their orders to work as housekeepers for cardinals and bishops in Rome with little or no remuneration.

It later chronicled a “burnout” syndrome, where younger women with good educations were held back by older superiors reluctant to relinquish a boot camp-style tradition of assigning them menial tasks, ostensibly to instill discipline and obedience.

“Whatever may have worked in a pyramidal, authoritarian context of relationships before is no longer desirable or liveable,” wrote Sister Nathalie Becquart, a French member of the Xaviere Missionary Sisters and one of the highest-ranking women in the Vatican.

Becquart wrote in the book’s preface of the “cries and sufferings” of women who entered convents because they felt a calling from God but later left because their complaints too often fell on deaf ears.

Some were stigmatized as “traitors” by their orders and had great difficultly getting jobs in the outside world.

Last year, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, who heads the Vatican department that oversees religious congregations, revealed that Pope Francis had opened a home in Rome for former nuns abandoned by their orders.

The cardinal, who has launched investigations into a number of convents, told the Vatican newspaper he was shocked to discover that there were a few cases where former nuns had to resort to prostitution to live.

Complete Article HERE!

Historic gathering with bland agenda unlikely to stem decay in the Catholic Church

The number of Catholics in Australia is in decline.

By Paul Collins

Like it or not, Catholicism is still enormously influential in Australia. It is Australia’s largest non-government employer through its schools, hospitals and aged care with around 230,000 people working directly for the church. It also runs many voluntary organisations, like the Saint Vincent de Paul Society with some 20,700 members and 41,150 volunteers with a huge impact on social welfare.

Despite this, Catholicism’s reputation has been effectively trashed in the media and wider community by the sexual abuse crisis and church leaders’ appalling, long-term failure to deal decisively with clerical abusers. The revelations of the royal commission reinforced the church’s toxic reputation.

The result: people are abandoning Catholicism in droves. The percentage of self-confessed Catholics in the population has dropped from 27 per cent in 2001 to 22.6 per cent in the 2016 census. Of the 5.3 million Catholics in 2106, only 11.8 per cent attended Mass regularly.

In an attempt to respond, Australia’s 46 bishops are gathering with 99 invited priests, 25 religious sisters and around 110 laypeople from across Australia in a Plenary Council in early October to try to sort out the church’s future.

To prepare for the plenary, a nationwide consultation was held with Australian Catholics. The response was enormous: more than 222,000 people participated, with 17,457 written submissions from groups and individuals. Issues emerging from the consultation focused around clerical control, lack of leadership, accountability, marginalisation of laypeople in decision making, election of bishops, gender and sexual issues, ministry, especially that of women, married priests, the church’s role in a secular culture and relationships with the wider community.

But that’s where democracy and consultation ended. The plenary organisers watered down these issues into a 69-page, bland, cautious document lacking any sense of crisis, written by an archbishop, a priest and two laypeople, entitled Continuing the Journey.

A victim of historic sex abuse by a WA priest has been awarded a massive payout.

This document constitutes the agenda for the plenary. It doesn’t reflect community concerns and the hard questions expressed in the consultations, but replaces them with generic, vague and frustratingly generalised concerns like “prayer”, “conversion”, “formation”, “structures”, “institutions”, and “governance”. This rhetoric doesn’t encourage discussion of the practical and hard questions that the church faces and understandably many committed Catholics have already lost faith in the plenary process.

The plenary’s first session meets next Sunday. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, it will employ a “multi-modal” format, combining in-person and online engagement. A second session will meet in October 2022. Bishops alone will have a deliberative vote. It will be their conclusions that go to the Vatican for approval and given the snail’s pace of Rome, it’ll be 2024 before anything practical begins.

Australia is an object lesson in what not to do when planning church renewal. Don’t go the way that gets you caught-up in a morass of church law and hands over all decision-making power to bishops, not all of whom, it is clear, are really committed to the plenary process, let alone to reforming the church. The fundamental mistake was using a church law-regulated plenary process as the way of confronting Catholicism’s woes. The suspicion is that the bishops chose this precisely because it was tightly controlled by law, allowing them to manage it.

It would have been much better to have had a less-structured national assembly, where a variety of views could be expressed freely, and indicative votes could show what the local Catholic community wanted, leading to concrete actions. While Catholicism remains very influential in Australia through its ministries, the number of active Catholics continues to shrink and the church is increasingly a hollowed-out institution. It’s unlikely that the Plenary Council will do much to halt that decay.

That is unless the bishops put aside their clerical habits and let the faithful in the pews have a much greater say.

Complete Article ↪HERE↩!

How women feel undervalued by the Catholic Church

Analysis: there are around 400 women across the island of Ireland ministering in Christian churches as their main life choice

“A study found that a stunning 74% of Irish Catholic women believed that the Church did not treat them with ‘a lot of respect’, compared to just 6% of Protestant women”.

By Gladys Ganiel

The decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland has included a steep drop in vocations to the priesthood. While Ireland once exported its surplus of priests across the world just 13 men began training for the priesthood here last year. Added to that, the average age of priests is 70. Many parishes are staffed by elderly men who would be enjoying retirement in other professions.

Priestly vocations have often been described as a ‘calling’. Is there something about this secularising island, including the impact of clerical abuse scandals, that makes God’s voice hard to hear? Research points to a counter-narrative, one in which some people believe that God still speaks. Anne Francis’s study of women in ministry in Ireland was simply titled Called to emphasize women’s deep conviction that they were responding to a supernatural prompting to serve.

It is a conviction shared by Soline Humbert, who has felt called to the priesthood since she was a student at Trinity College Dublin in the 1970s. While she quietly stifled her call for decades, she celebrated her first public Eucharist 25 years ago – without, of course, the blessing of the Catholic Church. Humbert’s decision to defy official Church teaching was in part stimulated by a 1994 apostolic letter from Pope John Paul II which condemned even discussing women’s ordination. Hopes that Pope Francis would be more open to women’s ordination have not materialized. “It was a big relief when I could be open about [my vocation]”, said Humber. “Before, it was like being in a tomb – gradually you end up dead inside.’

John Paul II later said that those who continued to discuss women’s ordination ‘were effectively excommunicating themselves’. But women around the world have continued to hear a call, with growing numbers organising their own ordinations, celebrating Eucharist and taking responsibilities for parishes, building thriving ministries despite their excommunication.

Across the island, there are around 400 women ‘ministering as their main life choice’, including Protestant clergy, Catholic Religious and laity with formal roles in church structures. While these women reported feeling fulfilled by their calling, 70% across all Christian traditions believed gender issues had negatively impacted their life or work.

Almost all Catholic women thought that a patriarchal Church culture prevented women’s ordination and felt their contributions to ministry were not valued by authorities. Similarly, some Presbyterian clergy believed the validity of female ordination was under attack by conservative elements in their church. Between 2013 and 2020, Rev Dr Stafford Carson, who opposes women’s ordination, was principal of Union Theological College, where ministers for the Presbyterian Church are trained.

Female clergy in the Church of Ireland and Methodist churches were most likely to feel valued. But women remain under-represented among their clergy and in positions of leadership. Pat Storey, Bishop of Meath and Kildare, is the only female bishop in the Church of Ireland; while Rev Dr Heather Morris, a former President of the Methodist Church, serves as the church’s General Secretary. A study found that while 20% of clergy in the Church of Ireland are women, they are less likely than their male counterparts to be employed as rectors of a parish and more likely to be serving in part-time or non-stipendiary posts.

Honouring the contribution of women?

In March 2021, the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference announced a ‘synodal pathway’, which will lead to a National Synodal Assembly in the next five years. Pope Francis has enthusiastically promoted synods as mechanisms for the Church to discern the will of the Holy Spirit, including contributions from lay and ordained.

As part of the process, the Bishops Conference has identified seven areas for ‘listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church in Ireland’, one of which is ‘honouring the contribution of women’. Dr Nicola Brady, a lay Catholic who as General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches is responsible for administering the island’s national-level ecumenical structures, has been named chair of the synodal steering committee. Her appointment reflects her expertise – and raises expectations that the synod will take women’s perspectives seriously.

Women’s inclusion is an urgent issue. While women are more likely to be regular churchgoers and pray more often than men, they feel undervalued by the Catholic Church. A study found that a stunning 74% of Irish Catholic women believed that the Church did not treat them with ‘a lot of respect’, compared to just 6% of Protestant women. It also found that 84% of Catholic and 95% of Protestant women were in favour of female clergy.

Former President Mary McAleese has captured the mood, describing the Catholic Church as ‘a primary global carrier of the virus of misogyny’. A 2018 poll found that 55% agreed with McAleese that the Church does not treat women equally and 62% agreed with her support for the ordination of women.

But dreams that the synod’s pledge to ‘honour’ women might extend to consideration of women’s ordination are likely to be misplaced. Pope Francis has been very clear that synods are not instruments to change church teaching, but rather to apply teaching more pastorally. It is not yet clear how conversations about women will be framed by the synod. Regardless, the women who feel ‘called’ will continue to bear witness to what they regard as the voice of God.

Complete Article HERE!

After Vatican said ‘God cannot bless sin,’ some LGBTQ people leave Catholic identity behind

By Alejandra Molina

For the past three years, Eder Díaz Santillan has hosted a podcast on which he interviews LGBTQ people on how they’ve coped with their gender and sexual identities while being raised in traditional Catholic upbringings. He also openly discusses his own identity as a Latino and gay Catholic man.

To Santillan, being gay and Catholic has meant reconciling with the reality the church has never fully accepted his LGBTQ identity. However, he’s recognized there’s a difference between his own relationship with God and the priests who have condemned homosexuality from the altar. It took years, but Santillan realized he could maintain his faith and his LGBTQ identity.

That’s why it may have been a surprise to his listeners when he announced in mid-March he would no longer identify as Catholic. The announcement came just days after the Vatican’s decree it wouldn’t allow priests to bless same-sex unions, saying “God cannot bless sin.”

“It took me this long to recognize that I can let go of anything that hurts me,” said Santillan, 35, on Instagram.

Pope Francis’ rejection of proposals that would allow priests to bless same-sex couples has left many LGBTQ Catholics feeling disappointed and demoralized by an institution they felt recently represented a softening toward LGBTQ marriages within the church. As a result, some have decided to leave their Catholic identities behind, while others remain hopeful the church will eventually become more accepting. Though some have said Francis later distanced himself from that decision, some, like Santillan, say “that’s not enough.”

After the Vatican’s statement, Santillan felt an urgent need to break from his Catholic identity. He realized he could no longer “normalize being Catholic and gay to my audience,” adding that he had become accustomed to the church’s “condemning narrative.”

The fact the church would not bless same-sex unions was nothing new to Santillan, but what struck him was the Vatican felt the need to “be so explicit” about it.

It was shocking,” he said.

To Santillan, the church’s stance is more than just an opinion of what is right and wrong; it fuels faith-based conversion therapy and the backing of laws that discriminate and criminalize LGBTQ people in Latin American countries. It has repercussions, he said. The Vatican’s “God cannot bless sin” statement took him back to his childhood, when he considered himself a sin due to the church’s rhetoric. He feared he was going to hell.

While Santillan figures out what it means to no longer identify as a Catholic, he said, he will always work to help those “who like me have to live with the trauma of the Catholic Church.”

Since the Vatican’s declaration over same-sex unions, the Rev. James Martin, an American Jesuit priest, said he’s heard from a number of LGBTQ Catholics whose reactions have “ranged from anger to hurt to frustration to disgust to despair.”

He said about a dozen have explicitly told him they were leaving the church as a result.

“Among that group the general response was, ‘I’m done.’ Or ‘This was the last straw,’” Martin told Religion News Service via email.

“The main reason that LGBTQ people felt hurt was not simply that priests were forbidden from blessing same-sex unions, a decision that many people may have expected, but that the statement went beyond that and talked about their love as ‘sin,’” said Martin, an advocate of the LGBTQ community.

As he listens to LGBTQ Catholics, Martin said he reminds them “they are, by virtue of the sacrament of baptism, as much a part of the church as their pastor, their bishop or the Pope.”

He also invites LGBTQ people to see the church “in its totality,” noting Francis’ appointment of Juan Carlos Cruz, an openly gay man, to a papal commission, as well as the number of European bishops who criticized the Vatican’s language.

“I invite them to see themselves as full members of the church, even a church that seems not to know how to welcome them,” Martin said.

For queer Catholics like Xorje Olivares, 32, it’s about making individual choices around what their Catholicism looks like. Spirituality, he said, doesn’t need to be a “one size fits all.”

“Everybody’s journey toward their acceptance of the Catholic faith or the role of the Catholic Church in their lives is their own, very much like everyone’s journey to their queerness is their own,” Olivares said.

Olivares, a former altar boy, hosts the podcast  “Queer I am, Lord,” where he talks with LGBTQ Catholics about why they’ve stayed in or left the church.

While Olivares said many queer Catholics grew up conditioned to fear God and to believe they are going to hell, “we’ve gone past that.” Meanwhile, he also acknowledged many still find it difficult figuring out “what to believe, when they have a church saying one thing and their bodies telling them another.”

“I sympathize with their struggles because those are very real,” he said.

Olivares often thinks about the kind of message they would send to the Catholic institution if every single LGBTQ person decided to leave the church, but he remains grounded by the Bible verse “knock and the door shall be open to you.”

“Here I am, me and all my queer friends. We’ve been knocking on the door over, and over, and over again, and I would be so upset with myself if the door finally opens and the church becomes a little more welcoming, and I’m not there because I decided to walk away,” he said.

“I don’t know if the church will be the safe space that I need it to be, or if it ever will be, but I know that I still find some joy referring to myself as a Catholic,” Olivares said.

Complete Article HERE!