A couple of weeks ago, I had the joy of visiting Our Lady of Mount Carmel-St. Benedicta and St. Mary of the Assumption parish on Staten Island. It was a rainy Friday evening, and Father Hernan, the Jesuit pastor, had invited me to bless a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the work of a local artist, commemorating the forty people in the parish who died during the pandemic.
The parish has a proud history, and is now blessed with a largely Mexican congregation.
As we processed through the drizzle, I was moved by the large number of people gathered before the mural. I could not articulate it, but there was something different about the crowd...
At the conclusion of the blessing, we processed into the parish church, which was also filled with folks. (By the way, proper and safe distancing was obeyed, temperatures were taken, masks worn and hand sanitizer all over the place, both in the parking lot and in the church.)
The feeling returned: there is something different about this congregation, something I usually do not see in my many parish visits. What was it?
The answer came as a baby began to cry: This crowd is filled with kids! There are babies, toddlers, children, and teenagers all over the place. How refreshing! How unique! How promising!
My parish priests tell me this is very true of our Latino parishes. They have babies! Thank God I sense this at some of our “Anglo” parishes as well.
We must still acknowledge that we have a “demographic challenge” in the Church. Growth comes to the Church in one, or more, of three ways: we are born into a Catholic family; we convert to the Catholic faith; or we emigrate from another country and bring our Catholic faith to our new home.
In this archdiocese, our growth mostly comes from the last way, immigration. If we depended solely on births or conversions, the Catholic population of this archdiocese would be dropping instead of remaining stable at 2.6 million.
That’s great...except for the fact that, with strict immigration limits, and tough pandemic regulations, not many immigrants can come.
Sometimes the answer to problems we face in the Church are so simple that we overlook them: our Mass attendance is down; our vocations are declining; our school enrollment is shrinking. On and on we debate about the complicated causes of this sclerosis in the Church. I propose that the answer is, couples are not having kids! There are fewer and fewer babies!
The caricature of big Catholic families—for instance, I’m the oldest of five kids, and we were considered a “medium size family” when I was growing up in our Catholic neighborhood—is now mere nostalgia.
This shortage of babies is especially graphic in Europe, where a “population freeze” is common, the annual rate of deaths is higher than the number of births.
Some sociologists report an “anti-natalist” ideology, where couples with more than one or two children are snickered at and harassed.
I hear our parish priests report the same apprehension: their baptisms and marriages are down, their funerals are up.
This is scary. Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish on Staten Island is the way a congregation should be: babies and kids welcomed, cherished, all over the place.
You know what really saddened me? Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish school was one of those we had to close in June...
In my travels around the world, I always heard people comment, “The Church in America is so young, so vibrant, so promising.” I don’t hear that much anymore...
“Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Let the little children come to me!’”