Way Stations for a Pilgrim Church

The Changing Landscape of American Parishes
This story is included in these collections
Parishioners in Amarillo, Texas (Bill McCullough)

Editors’ Note: We’ve asked a number of authors to discuss the state of the American parish and what it means to be church in a time of migration and movement. We also wanted to offer practical suggestions for how parishes can be more welcoming, just, and Spirit-filled in these times. Together, our contributors provide a picture of the U.S. church today, one not so much in decline as undergoing a profound transition. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The American Parish Today.

 

Some people mark out eras in their lives by the places they’ve lived or the jobs they’ve held. I measure mine in parishes.

I grew up in a Catholic parish south of Denver that sat on a hill and faced the front range of the Rocky Mountains. The church was the apotheosis of post–Vatican II architecture, rounded and dark and a little odd. The walls were built of brown brick, the kind that clung to your clothes like Velcro if you leaned against them. Olive-green and burnt-orange carpet blanketed the floors, and ruddy tile gave the narthex a smoldery, numinous glow. The western-facing wall was made of plate-glass windows. As a kid, I spent most of Sunday Mass transfixed by rose-colored rays of sunlight shooting through the clouds onto the snowy face of Mt. Evans, a view that lent an organic logic to the sacraments: God, too, could be both grand and intimate, both transcendent and earthy.

Every summer, my parents shuttled my siblings and me off to visit our great-aunts in Streator, Illinois, a small, rural town ninety miles south of Chicago where my mother’s side of the family had lived for generations. Once there, we melded into life at their parish, St. Stephen’s. The church was the oldest Slovak parish in the United States, a distinction my Slovak-American family wore with pride. My siblings and I spent our summer breaks helping our aunts and the other ladies of the Altar and Rosary Society run the parish rummage sale, sell rozek, and lead the rosary at the local Catholic nursing home. At St. Stephen’s, the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council were still being received in the 1990s. Mass-goers still knelt at the extant altar rail to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, a practice as foreign as it was enchanting to a nine-year-old future Millennial. St. Stephen’s was like an immersion trip into the Catholic past, into a world of ethnic religious enclaves that otherwise only existed for me in old family photos.

After college, I moved to Brownsville, Texas, to teach middle school with a Catholic postgraduate service program. My local parish, San Felipe de Jesus, sat in the heart of the colonia of Cameron Park, known as much for its one-time designation as the poorest place in the United States as for its tradition of social organizing. Most parishioners were Mexican immigrants, documented and undocumented alike. Many lived on both sides of the border, regularly traversing the international bridge between Brownsville and neighboring Matamoros to shop or go to the dentist or visit loved ones. At San Felipe, the porosity of the Rio Grande Valley borderlands was manifested liturgically. Prayers, processions, and posadas regularly flowed onto the streets, blurring the boundary between church and everyday life.

Later, I moved to Boston for graduate school. Two thousand miles north of the Rio Grande Valley, I found myself worshipping in a different sort of borderland: St. Mary of the Angels, a small parish in Roxbury that served a tightly knit, multiethnic, multilingual community composed primarily of African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Latinx, and Irish-American Catholics. At the 9 a.m. English-language Mass, the affective high point of the liturgy was the Sign of Peace. As the choir sang “This Little Light of Mine,” worshippers would spill out of their pews to embrace one another. Elderly Jamaican women kissed the cheeks of white thirty-somethings, while gregarious toddlers (including my own) darted down the aisles to collect as many hugs as time would allow. To the dismay of newly arrived priests, exchanges of “Peace be with you” were usually accompanied by “How’s the baby?” or “Will you be at the meeting later?” Eventually the music would taper off and people would wipe the tears from their eyes and take deep breaths and slowly recede into their pews. It remains the only parish I’ve ever belonged to where everyone knew everyone else by name and noticed if you were gone.

 

The 1983 Code of Canon Law describes parishes as stable communities of the faithful. In their own ways, each of these far-flung parishes was just that, or seemed to be at the time. They were places—rooted and untransferable, woven recognizably into the fabric of their neighborhoods and geographies. Entering into the lives of these communities taught me that holiness has a fundamentally local character. They were holy because they were there, ordinary and unspectacular, each its own peculiar embodiment of the Communion of Saints.

My lifelong enchantment with the eccentricities of Catholic parishes prefigured my eventual vocation: I became a theologian. As a graduate student, I worked with Hosffman Ospino on the National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry. The work I do now is in what I call lived ecclesiology. Through ethnographic research in parish communities, I examine how lay people use ritual to negotiate cultural difference and experiences of suffering. This work relies on the conviction that attending to the messy particularities of parish life helps us read the unfolding story of the church, not just sociologically but also theologically. The parish is a locus ecclesiologicus—a space for deep reflection about the meaning and mission of the church in a changing context.

Today, the story that U.S. parishes tell is one of displacement on a massive scale. Parish closures and consolidations are reshaping territorial boundaries, throwing once-disparate communities together, scattering others, and leaving many in affected dioceses feeling pastorally abandoned and spiritually homeless. Meanwhile, the borderlines within parishes are also being reconfigured. As the church becomes increasingly diverse, cultural communities coalesce and coexist in “shared parishes.” In rarer cases, they establish personal parishes, akin to but much less common than the national and ethnic parishes of the past—a pastoral strategy most common among Asian-American Catholics.

[Cities like Fresno & Phoenix have seen large increases in Catholics while others have seen sharp decline. See the data here.] 

Shifting, too, are boundaries of belief, affiliation, and practice. An increasing number of U.S. Catholics locate themselves on the peripheries of the church. Disagreement with church teachings, dissatisfaction with the role of women and the treatment of LGBTQ persons, and disillusionment wrought by the sex-abuse crisis have caused many to reevaluate their relationship to the institutional church and, in turn, to their parishes. Such displacements are harder to quantify—statistics on Catholic disaffiliation tell only part of the story—but they are supremely evident to anyone who has spent time in Catholic communities recently. In a particular way, the relentless tide of abuse revelations has exposed the fragility of authority, the deceptiveness of charisma, the insufficiency of Catholics’ formation on issues of sexuality, and the dark consequences of patriarchy and secrecy. The crisis has forced lay people, many for the first time, to wrestle in a sustained way with the reality of the church’s sinfulness and the limits of their own power. Some have chosen to leave altogether. Together, these transformations are upending perceptions of the parish’s storied stability. Parishes today are spaces of ambiguity, uncertainty, and change—unstable communities of the faithful.

At the macro level, the geographical center of gravity in the U.S. church is shifting under our feet. Dioceses throughout the upper Midwest and Northeast are closing, merging, and clustering parishes in an attempt to maintain viability in the face of declining Mass attendance, worsening clergy shortages, and a surfeit of aging church buildings too costly to repair. In New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago—once urban centers of U.S. Catholic life—two decades of restructuring efforts have shuttered or consolidated hundreds of parishes and Catholic schools.

Meanwhile, in the South and West, parishes are overflowing more quickly than they can be built. America’s largest parish is in Charlotte, North Carolina—historically one of the least Catholic regions in the nation. Nearby, in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Catholic population increased by 259 percent between 2000 and 2010, in part due to immigration. Two years ago, I moved to Atlanta to teach at Candler School of Theology, the United Methodist seminary and theological school at Emory University. In 2018, Candler inaugurated a program in Catholic Studies, a response to the explosive growth of Catholics in the region and the paucity of institutions here dedicated to forming them for ministry. In Atlanta, half of the archdiocese is Latinx. Black Catholic students are a defining presence at Candler. In other words, this is a region that looks a lot like the church itself.

Geographical transformation has coincided with sweeping demographic change. In the 1980s, the landmark Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life offered a comprehensive portrait of U.S. parish practice two decades after Vatican II. Unparalleled in its scope at the time, the results of the study definitively shaped collective understandings of what was happening on the ground in U.S. Catholicism for decades to come. But excluded from the study were Spanish-speaking and other non-English-speaking parishes and parishioners. Unsurprisingly, the picture that emerged was of a church that was normatively white, largely assimilated, and primarily English-speaking. That wasn’t fully the case then, and it’s even less the case now. People of color—Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and others—make up more than half of U.S. Catholics born since Vatican II. Latinos alone account for 71 percent of the U.S. Catholic population’s growth since 1960. Today, they compose about 38 percent of U.S. Catholics, and well over half of Catholics under the age of forty.

Comparing this sweeping demographic transformation with parish-level realities also reveals some startling inequities.

Immigration is a driving force behind this diversification. As of 2012, nearly 80 percent of Catholics belonged to a parish that was home to recent immigrants. Between 1980 and 2014, according to CARA (the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate), the number of U.S. Catholics born outside the country nearly quadrupled. And a Pew survey showed that more than a quarter of all Catholic adults in the United States are first-generation immigrants, and another 15 percent are second-generation. The majority are from Mexico, though Catholics from elsewhere in Latin America, the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, China, and sub-Saharan Africa are also strongly represented in the pews.

Yet comparing this sweeping demographic transformation with parish-level realities also reveals some startling inequities. Though Latinos account for most of the growth in the church and often constitute a numerical majority in parishes, ministerial and liturgical resources, paid personnel, pastoral attention, and decision-making authority are disproportionately concentrated among white Catholics. Almost four in ten U.S. Catholics identify as Hispanic or Latinx, but only 3 percent of priests are, and only about a quarter of parishes regularly celebrate Mass in Spanish or offer some form of Hispanic ministry. Just over half of U.S. Catholics are white, but according to the National Congregations Study, over 80 percent of Mass-goers attend a parish with a white pastor, while 71 percent of parishes offer Mass in English only. Despite the steady rise in culturally diverse parishes, the majority still remain economically, racially, and ethnically segregated. In a recent essay, public policy scholar Mary Jo Bane sums it up starkly: “The Catholic parish landscape is essentially made up of rich white parishes and poor Latino parishes.”

These pastoral disparities are reflected in the attitudes of the people in the pews. In a recent CARA survey of parishioners who belonged to culturally diverse parishes, white respondents showed abysmally low levels of support for the prospect of greater diversity in their parishes. Their support for welcoming immigrants, non-English speakers, and certain communities of color into their parishes was also markedly lower than it was among Latino, Asian, Black, Native American, and multi-racial respondents. Unsurprisingly, white parishioners were also less likely than their non-white counterparts to feel like outsiders at their parishes or to perceive intercultural tension there. While cultural diversity is indeed transforming the church, stark asymmetries of power persist. White Catholics continue to act as gatekeepers in parishes, even where they are in the minority.

 

Not one of the parishes I grew up in looks the way it did when I sat in its pews. Each is a sign of the times.

When I arrived at St. Mary of the Angels in Boston, it had been almost a decade since the “Spotlight” reports threw open the windows on clergy abuse there, and seven years since the archdiocese announced the sweeping closures of almost one-fifth of its parishes. Both of these crises ravaged Boston Catholics’ trust in the hierarchy. The result was a city full of spiritual refugees—lifelong Catholics driven from their institutional homes by betrayal and their parochial homes by closure. St. Mary of the Angels—having only narrowly avoided closure itself—became a landing place for many of them. Inclusive and unpretentious and relentlessly lay-led, it was the kind of parish you ended up at if you were searching for a place to belong. This sort of openness to change required that the parish hold its identity loosely—and change it did, again and again.

In 2015, parishioners at San Felipe de Jesus in Brownsville began welcoming a new community to Mass: more than a hundred unaccompanied child migrants, most from Central America, who were being housed in nearby facilities. Every Sunday, parishioners reserved a section of pews for the children—a powerful symbol of acceptance. Throughout the Valley today, empty pews bear evidence of the terror visited upon border communities by the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration policies. Parish leaders there report that many undocumented parishioners are afraid to leave their homes to attend Mass. Communities like San Felipe de Jesus continue to be centers of accompaniment, solidarity, and advocacy.

In 2010, my family’s beloved Slovak parish was merged with the town’s other remaining parishes as the Catholic population declined. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Slovak, Irish, Polish, and German immigrants who settled in Streator each built and sustained their own churches. Times have changed. Culturally shared parishes have supplanted national parishes as the primary model for integrating new immigrants into parish life. Today, Streator’s single parish owes much of its survival to the town’s growing Latinx community. Masses are now celebrated in English and Spanish, and a vibrant painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe hangs alongside the vintage, European-style statues of the Holy Family.

What about my childhood parish? It tells the other part of the American parish story. Once located on the far, airy edge of metro Denver development, it now sits in the heart of suburbia, enveloped by the tendrils of a nearby retail superplex. A decade ago, the church underwent a lavish renovation aimed, ostensibly, at shoring up visible signs of its Catholic identity with an increasingly wealthy and more self-consciously conservative community. Glossy marble replaced the dark wood and groovy carpet. Stained glass now filters the mountain view. My mother, still a parishioner, has never heard the abuse crisis mentioned there—it’s almost as if it never occurred. Despite the prevalence of Spanish-speaking Catholics in the area, all of its seven weekend Masses are still in English. Like many predominately white suburban parishes, it has largely opted out of the work of responding to cultural diversity, despite its geographic location. It is hard not to feel as though the community has braced itself against the tides of change by retreating into the security of a supposed timelessness and placelessness.

 

The worst thing we could do for parish life in this moment would be to conflate change with ‘crisis.’

What good is the parish within this landscape of change? Some have argued that the parish has reached the end of its viability as a model of local ecclesial community. Ecclesial movements, campus ministries, and even online communities have supplanted parishes as primary loci of religious participation, social belonging, and connection to the universal church for many Catholics. As the U.S. Catholic population increases while the number of parishes and priests declines, parishes themselves are becoming larger, some unmanageably so. Here in the Atlanta area, thousands of Latinx Catholics are served in massive, pan-cultural missions. Arrangements like these begin to feel like dioceses unto themselves, so diffuse that hope for anything approximating genuine community lies in the cultivation of smaller and more intimate subgroups. The parish structure as we know it originated with the Council of Trent as a way to clarify the task of ministry within the geographical expanse of a diocese. Perhaps, some suggest, the challenges of ministry in the present era simply demand a new solution.

Others take the opposite view, pushing for a radical recommitment to the territorial parish. The spiritual placelessness and social homophily of postmodernity has made the parish’s appeal less clear. Theologian Vincent Miller has argued that on an ecclesial level, the deterritorialization wrought by globalization has threatened “the church’s ability to be present in and to any particular place.” For him, this trend is manifested most clearly in the prevalence of “parish shopping.” Instead of gathering with the proverbial here-comes-everybody of one’s neighborhood, people now seek out parishes that suit particular preferences: better music, more competent homilies, a greater emphasis on social justice, a more traditional liturgical style, a better generational fit. As believers sacrifice local diversity for the comfort of like-minded enclaves, Miller suggests, they “lose the habits of cohabiting with people who are different from them,” in some way undermining the very catholicity of the church. As an antidote to this, he urges resisting the temptation to parish shop, instead grounding ecclesial belonging in our local communities—however imperfect they may be. In an age of extreme polarization, resisting the urge to self-sort can be countercultural.

But while parish shopping is typically denounced like some kind of national epidemic, a closer look reveals a different picture. According to CARA, more than half of African-American parishioners, and nearly half of Hispanic and Asian-American Mass-goers, bypass their territorial parishes to attend Mass elsewhere. At St. Mary of the Angels in Boston, the Spanish-language Mass had become a spiritual haven for Dominican and Puerto Rican Catholics living well beyond the surrounding neighborhood. One woman, a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic, had been attending Mass closer to her home when a friend invited her to St. Mary’s. She described the sense of welcome and relief that washed over her when she arrived. “I felt like I was at home because others treated me very well,” she recalled. “I felt like I was in my parish in Santo Domingo.” Seen in this light, parish shopping suddenly appears to be less about the triumph of consumerism over the virtue of local belonging and more about the longing for a basic level of inclusion—a yearning for home.

Yet Miller’s call to take more seriously the relationship between place and ecclesial life stands. For a long time, the sort of holiness that parish life disclosed was a factor of its ability to bind people to place and, in some subtle way, to reveal the incarnational sacredness of the local and particular. Today, the boundaries of parish life are shifting: across the country, within communities, within ourselves. In an age of migration and profound change, parishes still offer us a way to think about holiness—that is, if we are willing to listen to the voices of those most responsible for the transformation and continued vitality of parish life. Latinx theologians and scholars of religion—Arturo Bañuelas, Neomi De Anda, Allen Figueroa Deck, Virgilio Elizondo, Nichole Flores, Roberto Goizueta, Justo González, Cecilia González-Andrieu, Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Daisy Machado, Carmen Nanko-Fernández, Leo Guardado, Hosffman Ospino, Nancy Pineda-Madrid, Fernando Segovia, and many, many others—have spent decades calling the church to recognize the revelatory status of margins and borders and the salvific power of solidarity across boundaries of many kinds. It’s time to pay attention.

The worst thing we could do for parish life in this moment would be to conflate change with “crisis,” sharpen our apologetics, and flatten ambiguities in a desperate attempt to keep anybody else from leaving. (Spoiler: it won’t work.) Reality is inviting us instead to embrace the transitions happening all around us. The stability of the parish relies on a paradox: while territorially grounded, parishes also facilitate a kind of transitory belonging. While they differ in many ways, the consistency of certain things—the structure and flow of liturgical ritual, for example—means that they offer a chance at home in any place. They are like way stations for a pilgrim church—beckoning us across borders, ready to receive us on the other side.

Related:

Hear the author speak about her essay on The Commonweal Podcast, available below.

Susan Bigelow Reynolds is Assistant Professor of Catholic Studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. She is working on her first book, An Ecclesiology of Solidarity: Ritual, Community, and the Future of Parish Life.

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