Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The New, New Evangelization?

Basilica of St.s Peter and Paul, Lewiston, Maine
     Many a visitor to the old textile city of Lewiston, Maine, has been taken by surprise when, driving through a run-down neighborhood of shabby old New England triple-decker tenements, he suddenly finds an enormous and beautiful church looming over him.  This is the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, formally consecrated in 1938.  And its location is not at all as incongruous as it might at first seem: it was the most natural thing in the world for the inhabitants of those cheap apartment houses, mostly French Canadian immigrants who had come to Lewiston to work in the dark red-brick mills that lined the Androscoggin River, to put all their extra money and effort into building the most magnificent church possible.  And yes, it was those poor laborers, not wealthy benefactors or government grants that built the Basilica.   “Religion is the opiate of the people” is not the least of the foolish things Karl Marx said.  Opiates deaden the soul and weigh down the limbs: nobody pushes themselves to the limit to build monuments to those.  No, the Faith these humble workers brought with them from Quebec didn’t numb them into acquiescence, it gave them real assurance that they had something worth working toward: admittance to the presence of the living God.
     And so naturally it was a Church that they chose as the focus of their devotion.  Churches are much more than just buildings.  They are enormous sacramentals, consecrated objects that can help connect us to the Grace of a God who is pure Spirit; they are iconic representations that teach us at an unconscious level about an ordered Universe with God at the apex, or at least they used to be (see here and here).  They are also places closely connected to some of the deepest experiences of our lives, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals, as well as being places where communities gather.  Sometimes these connections are formed over the course of generations.  That’s why the closing of a church is so much more traumatic than the closing of a movie theater, for instance, or a department store.  The local church is, for most people, their concrete connection to transcendent realities.
     The Basilica of Peter and Paul, fortunately, is still going strong, but its community is no longer mostly drawn from the immediate neighborhood.  People have come from miles away to attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form every Sunday since then-Bishop Richard Malone designated it as one of two churches (the other being the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland) used by a newly-formed Latin Mass Chaplaincy in 2008.  There is also a Mass in the Ordinary Form celebrated with a reverence that draws worshippers from a wide area, and a French language Mass that is very well attended.   Many other churches, to the great sorrow of parishioners who have been orphaned, have not been so lucky.
     It’s in that connection that this post on Fr. Z’s blog (here), about parishioners in Buffalo who have enlisted the Vatican’s help in their attempts to keep their parish open, first caught my eye. I was sorry to see Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone, the same man who as Bishop of Portland helped keep the Basilica thriving, is cast as the Bad Guy of the piece.  For what it’s worth, many of us here thought he did a very good job as our bishop: one of his first decisions was to shut down a diocesan newspaper that had become a mouthpiece for dissenters, and he bravely and forthrightly defended human life and traditional marriage, often in the face of fierce public attacks [note: Bishop Malone has continued his strong defense of the faith in Buffalo, as here].  Still, there were many churches shuttered forever, which seems to be one of the first lessons they teach in Bishop School these days.  After reading the post linked above I can’t help but wonder: would it have made a difference if some of the parishes here had thought to appeal to the Pope?
     There are bigger questions, of course.  Fr. Z asks:

What sort of faith in an effort of “New Evangelization” do we evince if, while chattering about it, we are closing the churches we need to fill in the very places where the “New Evangelization” needs to be pursued?

That’s a good point.  Just as all those triple-deckers around the Basilica in Lewiston are still filled with
Holy Mass in the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
people, but no longer (mostly) people attending the church that dominates their neighborhood, the same is true of the churches being decommissioned.  The areas around them, with perhaps some few exceptions, are just as heavily populated as they were when the churches were packed every Sunday.  And while bishops and their staffs around the country should certainly learn to think more like Evangelists and less like Administrators, we lay Catholics (I include myself) need to ask ourselves what more we can do invite all those people on the outside into the Church. If earlier generations with fewer resources but great faith could build the basilicas, could we not at least put enough people in the pews?