“It took a few months for people to decide where they would find their spiritual home.” So said Mark Dupont recently, speaking for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield on what parishioners do when churches are consolidated.
I wouldn’t take Mark Dupont’s job on a bet. We wordsmiths are a singular lot paid to make silk purses out of pig’s ear situations with the aid of computers, thesauruses and otherwise useless English degrees. The concept of public relations is asking folks to accept today what they hated yesterday.
The decision to consolidate all five of Northampton’s Roman Catholic churches, each with a unique hold on their ethnic and local communities is a test of both individual and collective faith. I, for one, was baptized, confirmed and married at St. Mary of the Assumption on Elm Street. For anyone with similar longtime memories, it’s difficult to comprehend that their home parish is due to close on Jan. 3, 2010.
A trendy if condescending term, Cradle Catholic, applies to my co-religionists of America’s prewar generation. Shortly after birth we were baptized “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” confirmed around our 12th year, then let loose to find our way in the world, but buttressed by the Socratic queries of the Baltimore Catechism: “Who made you? God made me. Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”
Early on you knew where you stood in relation to the world, body and soul. Your life’s purpose was to contribute with the promise of a heavenly reward. As new adults we realized that life was complex. Yet, as true believers we had a faith foundation on which to stand, and an endless resource in daily prayer. Also, praying didn’t require a venue. As a children’s hymn has it, “We are the church, happy to be the children in God’s family.”
If the people are the church, church buildings are disposable, aren’t they?
Well, yes and no. A family needs a home. In church we join a fellowship of believers. Jesus said, “Wherever two or more gather in my name, I am there.”
We need companions on our journey.
Unforgettably, the Sisters of Saint Joseph taught their students at Saint Michael’s in Northampton that the Church was universal. As one of those students, I learned that we belonged to an exclusive club with a membership in every country, where Catholic priests celebrated the Mass in a common language, Latin.
Our travels challenged old assumptions when Latin changed to the vernacular.
In Rome for the Holy Year in 2000 the local parish Mass was said in Polish, which was a surprise. In Bermuda the barrier rose higher as that Sunday’s sermon was in Portuguese. In London, an order of service in various languages was handed out to aid worshippers from around the world. At any rate, in each one of those churches the canon of the Mass was identical.
A simple measure of any church is when you’re greeted warmly at the door, and can recognize a few of the hymns. Gaining friends during potluck suppers is gravy.
Looking ahead, thousands of Pioneer Valley Catholics will be making decisions on where to worship. A serious dilemma demands a thoughtful response, one equal to what’s at stake: leaving the familiar behind and choosing a new spiritual home.
As Garry Wills states in his book “Why I Am a Catholic,” “An unexamined faith is not a faith. It is a superstition.” Author Wills is a professor, historian and layman who has justified his faith by facing up to the failures of its clergy, including Popes, before concluding, “I am not a Catholic because of the Pope. I am a Catholic because of the (Apostles’) creed.”
My experience within the Catholic Church mirrors writer Wills in that teachers, priests and fellow believers repeatedly nurture my faith when it falters. As 2009 winds down, every Catholic in the Springfield Diocese shares the duty and the right to ask what’s happening in their church. At some point each of us must find our own answer to Garry Wills’ question:
What do I believe? Is it the Apostles’ Creed, or something less?
Issues of money, tradition, acoustics, history and spires cause anxiety that, in time, will surrender to a new reality. In temporary shock, God’s people are hurting.
Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross laid out the path grief follows after a sudden death or loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Kubler-Ross’ stepping-stones are far apart. Our Catholic faithful will also trod a Via Dolorosa as they strive to, “Love and serve Him in this world and be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”
Ergo, we live in hope. Last fall at UMass, the Rev. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist and best-selling author, used both stories and statistics to explore prayer in America. Smiling, he summed up his talk by inviting his audience of believers and doubters to: “Go ahead, pray for your every wish. It can’t hurt!”