Few events signaled the rapid expansion of the church in the United States in the 20th century like a groundbreaking. Church archives are strewn with pictures of prelates standing in open fields, wielding a shovel or pronouncing a blessing over new construction. The church was growing and with it the buildings and institutions that served the Catholic population.
Today the church in much of the country is contracting. Schools have closed, hospitals merged, novitiates shuttered—moments rarely captured on film. With priestly and religious vocations and Mass attendance in decline, the church can no longer do all it once did. This may seem obvious, but its corollary still provokes resistance and controversy: Still more institutions will have to close—not just parishes and parochial schools, but colleges and hospitals, soup kitchens and retreat centers. The coming decades will see growth, too, in the suburbs and in Latino communities. Churches and schools will continue to be built. Yet the growth of some ministries will come in conjunction with the closing of others. Church leaders must act from a position of humility, always seeking to discern what they can accomplish with limited resources.
In the future, collaboration among Catholic institutions will be essential. There are promising signs: universities have already made homes for schools of theology and think tanks like the Woodstock Theological Center. In New York three dioceses plan to send candidates for the priesthood to a common seminary. Yet too many Catholic organizations remain locked in a survivalist mindset. It may no longer be possible for each religious order to maintain its own retreat houses or schools. If creative ways to work together are not energetically explored, then institutions will continue to close in abrupt and haphazard ways.
Yet collaboration will not save every institution. Some ministries have fulfilled their role and will have to bring their service to an end. This will be a painful process. Catholics have strong connections to the places that nurtured their faith. When a parish or hospital closes its doors, a rich piece of Catholic history is lost. But the church is called to be a wise steward of its resources. Keeping an institution alive for the sake of tradition prevents the growth of more urgently needed ministries.
On this difficult journey, church leaders can look to two examples to guide them. Communities of women religious have spent years contemplating their uncertain future. With diminished vocations and an aging population, they have by necessity engaged in an extensive process of discernment. In the case of the Sisters of Mercy, for instance, this process led to the merger of regional communities. Other orders have chosen to close their motherhouses. These changes are acknowledged for what they are: a moment for grieving that calls for prayer and liturgical commemoration. They have also been opportunities to look back in joy at all the good work these women accomplished.
Missionaries can also serve as a source of inspiration. The Maryknoll Sisters, for example, understand mission as the foundation of their charism. Before making key decisions, they study their own experience to discern whether their work overseas is truly shaped by this founding spirit. So too must church leaders in this country be focused on their mission and on how best to achieve it. Sometimes a community may no longer need a Catholic school, but it continues to need a rigorous program of religious education. In other cases, the church may not be the most efficient provider of direct services; other religious groups, or even secular agencies, may better meet the need.
All Catholic institutions, including enterprises like America Press, are called to a period of sustained listening and discernment. In recent years much energy has been spent on fundraising. This remains a necessary endeavor. At a time when Catholic donors lag behind their Protestant and Jewish counterparts, a culture of philanthropy must be further nurtured among Catholics. Success should be measured by current accomplishments rather than past performance. Leaders of Catholic institutions must be willing to see clearly where they have succeeded and where they have failed—and to work to understand why.
Anyone who witnessed the fight over the closing of St. Brigid’s in San Francisco or the tumultuous last days of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York knows how difficult the next few decades could be. The Catholic Church in the United States will always be home to faith-filled institutions. Yet the success of future ministries depends largely on the actions of Catholic leaders today. The church in the United States has been blessed with a vast network of Catholic ministries. To move on to a future the Spirit has prepared, it must trust its charisms will unfold in new ways.