Post-Institutional?

I think not.

An interesting thread developing at dotCommonweal commenting on, in turn, a Boston Globe piece on “post-institutional” Catholicism. From Arthur McCaffrey’s article:

While the universal Catholic Church seems on the verge of imploding under the weight of its own moral crisis, the weekly gathering of this close-knit congregation generates a palpable spirituality that is rare and unique.

There is much, much more to Catholicism or to religion in general than the generation of spirituality. How does that happen, by the way? Fancy vestments and pseudo-chant? People praying and swaying with closed eyes? Eschewing electric lights for candles? The key elements of Christianity include evangelization, which leads to formation, worship, and service. Any vital and viable faith community will have these. No doubt there are whole parishes (financially viable, of course) that exude “church” on the outside, when in fact, little or none of these elements are taking place within the doors or in the neighborhood.

The St. James phenomenon (replicated across sister parishes in Massachusetts that also chose vigil over closure) is changing church culture by pioneering a post-institutional brand of grass-roots Catholicism.

Not quite. I appreciate Mr McCaffrey’s insider’s-out view on his movement. But his protest communities are no more pioneers than the country club down the road. And I say that will full sympathy for the seemingly or actually unfair closing of otherwise-viable parish communities.

Lay people got fed up with the Church in the 4th century, too, when they thought the faith was being diluted, and few enough Christians were taking the good ol’ days (lions, feeding time, etc.) to heart. Result: the monastic movement.

If St James and the other Massachusetts communities were taking this to heart, they would look a little more like their monastic forebears. And as such, they would attend to the things the early desert folk did: pray, do penance, give alms, practice hospitality, write, evangelize, learn and study, sing. And perhaps the parish closure protesters do all this. St James continues with many of the usual Catholic outreach, as evidenced by the article linked below. But our expression of Christianity isn’t tied to particular buildings. And I need to point out that in almost all cases, today’s Catholics aren’t the people who sacrificed greatly to build these churches. That would be grandparents, and generations before that. These buildings are a legacy. But an authentic pilgrim people doesn’t require such edifices to maintain faithfulness to the core Gospel. and I would hope this protest is partly about remaining faithful to the essentials of Catholicism, and not necessarily the institution. Because on that last point, I can get fully on board.

It reminds us that it is people, not institutions, who practice faith, demonstrating that, yes, people can think for themselves, without the dire consequences threatened by a follow-the-leader Vatican culture.

Or perhaps without a follow-the-leader parish culture.

Parishes on the fringes of viability are being challenged–sometimes justly, sometimes not–as to why they exist. If seventy percent or more of Boston-area Catholics have indeed vacated Sunday Mass, it would seem that a parish up for closure would take seriously the need for lassoing inactive Catholics back into the fold. Indeed, the statistics suggest there are enough Catholics out there to potentially triple the active membership. And that’s before we ponder what to do about Matthew 28:16-20 in the various corners of Boston.

It seems that Catholic parishes on the edge could make closure decisions much more difficult for chancery personnel. Unless, of course, this is more about maintaining a candlelight club in the empty pews. There, I would have no sympathy. The Gospel needs to get beyond the doors of the church after Mass anyway. True progressives would understand that.

Speaking for myself, I’m not all that keen to have post-instutional Massachusetts Catholicism tossed to the liberal wing of the Church. They look more like traditionalists who are/were used to their Catholicism in a certain brand. And they will latch on to the peripherals no matter what the cost.

An earlier article gives more background on the actual doings of the vigilant: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2008/12/21/keeping_watch/

Image credit: (Yoon S. Byun/Boston Globe Staff)

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Post-Institutional?

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    “These buildings are a legacy. But an authentic pilgrim people doesn’t require such edifices . . .”

    Although your comments and those at dot.commonweal pretty much sum up points of objection to the article, it should also be noted that St. James is not architecturally distinguished nor does it have a fine pipe organ or pieces of valuable artwork about to be trashed. The primary issue seems to revolve around ownership of the property; the family that donated the land is obviously not happy that it will no longer be used as they intended. I think lawyers representing the archdiocese feel they have that challenge covered. All in all, because we are dealing with a relatively modern parish community this case feels much different than so many of the other closures in the Archdiocese of Boston. I’ve been truly saddened by the boarding up of old parishes that are wedded to long accumulations of memories, but this case just doesn’t connect in the same way.

  2. Liam says:

    St James was the parish of a cousin of mine. FWIW, it’s a mid-20th century suburban expansion church in the slightly less posh end of a very posh suburb of Boston. This does appear to involve the land issue Randolph notes (a situation where municipalities might welcome further development to increase the tax base, but neighbors are in a NIMBY mood, shall we say). In my own town, we have a similar church with a similar land grantor issue, but this parish for now was spared closing.

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