Dear Bishops: We know the church is struggling. Let the rest of us help you.
Recently, the Archdiocese of St. Louis announced a proposal that would close more than half of its 178 parishes. The issues that the archdiocese has cited are all too familiar in the United States: decreasing attendance and an aging clergy.
The fact is, in the United States, young Catholics are not coming to church—in a 2021 CARA survey, only 13 percent of U.S. Catholics aged 18 to 35 said they attended Mass weekly and another 21 percent once a month. Likewise, a poll of Catholics in February showed that while half feel their faith in God improved during the pandemic, only 61 percent anticipated going back to Mass on a weekly basis by the summer.
Meanwhilea recent survey of U.S. priests saw half saying that they have experienced some form of ministerial burnout. Strikingly, those most likely to have experienced burnout were the newer priests, those under 45. And due to the shortage of priests in many places, older priests are being asked to stay in stressful, full-time positions long after their lay peers have been able to retire.
If I had one wish for the U.S. bishops right now, it is that those who are concerned or uncertain about our future would share that experience with the rest of us.
These are deeply worrying trends, data points that forebode a coming crisis of potentially historic proportions for the American church. It is becoming difficult to imagine what form the U.S. Catholic Church will take in 20 years. We are already near a point where there are not enough priests just to provide sacraments for the parishes that we have.
There is no doubt that every bishop is confronted by these issues on a regular, if not daily, basis and that they are struggling to find solutions that can stem the tide. But it is rare to hear a bishop speak from the heart about any of this.
I am hardly in a position to understand what it’s like to be a bishop facing what seems like our own Catholic version of oncoming climate change disaster. But if I had one wish for the U.S. bishops right now, it is that those who are concerned or uncertain about our future would share that experience with the rest of us. As paradoxical as it may seem, I think doing so could be a tremendous source of not only hope but enthusiasm in these trying times.
We know the problems are there.
In the face of the cascading crises facing our church, bishops keeping quiet about their experiences lends itself to misinterpretation. Some interpret it as a lack of care for the suffering that parishioners and clergy in parishes are already going through. Others wonder if the bishops are out of touch with what’s happening.
Personally, I suspect the reticence of bishops on these matters is more indicative of the seriousness with which they take their role. Catholics bishops are missioned to serve as pastors and preachers of the Good News. Talking about how bad things are getting, or naming problems without providing ready solutions, does not seem in keeping with that. Some might even argue that being upfront risks increases people’s discouragement and disaffection with the church.
For faithful Catholics who have been struggling with the state of things, to hear a bishop share their concerns and uncertainty would be enormously consoling.
But the fact is, anyone reading a newspaper in the last 20 years knows the situation of the Catholic Church in the United States. It is unlikely that anything a bishop might share could make the situation worse.
On the other side, for faithful Catholics who have been struggling with the state of things, to hear a bishop share their concerns and uncertainty would be enormously consoling. It tells them they are not alone and that they’re not wrong or bad for feeling the worry they do. It teaches us that an honest assessment of reality is not a sin. Even Jesus called out in confusion and fear from the cross.
Expressing the truth can be freeing.
On a couple of occasions, I have gotten to spend time in the outback of Australia. There are so few people living out there and so little light pollution, at night you look up into an ocean of stars. It sounds beautiful, but it’s also surprisingly unsettling. You can’t help but feel microscopically tiny in the face of it.
But at some point, that realization goes from vertiginous to liberating, even funny. It’s true, I am microscopically tiny in the context of the universe. So why do I walk around acting like everything is up to me?
Part of the burden of any position of leadership is the sense of personal responsibility that comes with it. This is your organization. Its welfare and future are in your hands.
For religious leaders like bishops, that burden is no doubt magnified. They are dealing not only with the financial well-being of employees but the spiritual well-being of an entire diocese and local community.
If a bishop were simply to express his fears or concerns, he would get many talented people who would leap to help. It is what people do for each other.
In that situation, it’s only natural to expect a tremendous amount from yourself, maybe even to think everything depends on you. But the fact is, it doesn’t. The church is God’s, and its future is in God’s hands. Bishops have a critical role to play, certainly, but they are not expected to “save the church.”
When you admit to others that you do not have all the answers, it frees you from some of the burden of that subtle demon of self-expectation. It reminds you that there is a God to whom you can turn. More than that, it reorients you toward him. Problems demanding answers instead become invitations to pause and listen. God, what are you trying to show us? What do you want us to see?
Expressing one’s limitations opens up new possibilities.
In Jesuit communities, you’ll sometimes hear a frustrated superior complain about how the men are not free, not available for mission. Some will try to use these comments as a sort of prod for change. And honestly, it is generally only effective in losing the confidence of the men. Because shame doesn’t motivate; it paralyzes.
You know what does get Jesuits moving? An expression of need. Our superior general says Jesuit Refugee Services needs volunteers, or a provincial says the pastor of one of our parishes is really struggling, and suddenly men are volunteering to help.
Bishops, you carry great burdens. But you need not carry them alone.
That is not just a Jesuit thing. When people see others in need, they have a natural inclination to respond.
I think that fits with the current dilemma of the church. Even as many Catholics see the problems confronting us, the organizational structure of the church is such that there is not a lot of room for us to either express our concerns or help. Instead, we are asked mostly to come to Mass, donate generously and maybe volunteer. And responsibility for anything connected to the bigger picture is left to the bishop and his staff.
If a bishop were simply to express his fears or concerns, he would get many talented people who would leap to help. It is what people do for each other. For so many Catholics, who love the church and see it struggling, it is also a much-desired chance to be a part of ensuring its life and future.
One can feel a sense of impending doom reading about the situation in the church today. But to the extent that they are shared, our struggles also offer opportunities. Bishops, you carry great burdens. But you need not carry them alone.