Closing parishes is painful—but there’s a better way to do it.
Like many Catholics across the Northeast and Midwest, parishioners in Pittsburgh are adjusting to a difficult new reality. On April 28 Bishop David A. Zubik announced plans to reduce the diocese’s 188 parishes to 57 by 2023. The parish closings follow years of falling Mass attendance—the diocese reports it is down by more than 40 percent since 2000—and decreased participation in the sacraments. The number of priests in the diocese is also expected to fall from 200 today to 112 in 2025.
This situation is not unique to Pittsburgh. The Archdiocese of Hartford is in the process of merging dozens of parishes and expects its 212 parishes to be consolidated into 85 over the next decade. Last year, the Archdiocese of Chicago, where an estimated 240 priests will be available to serve as pastors in 2030, launched “Renew My Church,” a major consolidation and renewal initiative for its 351 parishes.
Parish closures and mergers are painful, as anyone knows who has seen the doors close on the church where they were married or were baptized as a child. Parishioners feel they have lost their spiritual homes. But too often, coverage of these plans fails to recognize the severe constraints dioceses confront. Many of these churches were built at a time when seminaries were full or when it made sense to have clusters of ethnic parishes serving waves of new immigrants. Today, the church does not have the personnel to staff these parishes or the resources to maintain their properties. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, in 1965 there were 1,289 parishioners per priest; that ratio is now 2,600 to 1; 20 percent of parishes lack a resident pastor, compared with 5 percent 50 years ago. (The priest shortage is playing out rather differently in the South and West, where church construction can hardly keep up with growing Catholic populations.)
Today, the church does not have the personnel to staff these parishes or the resources to maintain their properties.
There is no way to meet the present challenge without a significant degree of real loss. But that does not mean these decisions have to be pitched as zero-sum battles. Any decisions to close or merge parishes should be preceded by an extensive period of consultation with parishioners. In Pittsburgh, for example, the diocese allowed a three-year period of discernment that included meetings with nearly 30,000 parishioners.
Parishioners, for their part, should make a good-faith effort to see the bigger picture beyond their parochial walls. Focusing on what can be gained through consolidation—resources for outreach to young people, services to the poor, better liturgies—places the understandably bitter loss of “my” parish in the proper context: the entire church. That church is not a collection of buildings but a living body that can experience loss but also rebirth.