As all of you know by now, two weeks ago, as a big part of our Making All Things New strategic pastoral planning of recent years, the archdiocese announced the merging of about 30% of our 368 parishes into fifty-five new ones.
While the news was hardly unexpected, since it’s been coming for years, and because the people of the parishes were involved in the process, it has been a rough couple weeks for the parishioners and clergy of the affected parishes.
And, as I’ve publicly acknowledged, it has hardly been a picnic for the leadership of the archdiocese, including me.
Thus, it was very good for me to talk with a brother bishop, an old friend, who himself just had to accept, not thirty-four churches no longer to be used, like I had to, but 118!
And, get this: his decision to close 118 parishes was not based on shifting populations, declining numbers in affected parishes, or a lack of clergy…but on the fact that those 118 churches had been burned to the ground by vicious anti-Christian mobs!
My friend is the Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria, Ignatius Kaigama.
Talking with him put our woes into perspective, and made me feel rather embarrassed and contrite about feeling sorry for myself over the anguish of our decisions.
Archbishop Ignatius, along with his courageous people and priests, are facing regular attacks by an outfit of thugs called Boko Haram, which is waging war on the Church.
And they are not alone. Throughout the world, especially in areas controlled by radical Islam, Christians are under attack. Each day leads to new reports of Christians beheaded, beaten to death, raped, or forced to flee. In some countries the victims are branded with an “N” to identify them as followers of Jesus of Nazareth. The ancient Churches of the Middle East, which have been in countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and parts of Lebanon since the time of the apostles, are literally near extinction, as believing Christians have been burned and slaughtered, or forced into exile.
And I’ve got the gall to consider our situation here in New York painful?
It’s called Christianophobia, a systematic, unrelenting persecution of believers, to intimidate them at best, to eradicate them at worst, and it shows no sign of letting up. New cases are reported daily from places such as Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Middle East, and Africa.
Another fact makes us blush: we admit that one of the reasons we’ve had to reduce the number of our parishes from 368 to 310 is because we do not have enough priests, resources, or people to keep them going. Our people have either moved, or their faith has grown so sluggish that they no longer frequent their parish.
The opposite is true in those besieged countries where the faith is in the crosshairs of snipers’ rifles. Archbishop Ignatius tells me, for instance, that 80% of his people are at Sunday Mass, vocations to priesthood are booming, and tens of thousands join the Church each year, even though it could cost them their lives!
Not only that, but the day after their simple parish church is torched, the people are back to rebuild it. And, instead of returning the violence, Archbishop Ignatius, his diocese, priests, and people, are uniting with their peaceful Islamic neighbors to resist the hatred and build bridges of peace.
Their faith is stronger, the Church more vibrant, united, and attractive, even though their 118 parishes have been leveled by attacks.
And here we drift along, watching our people walk away, our numbers shrink, our faith diluted. In our country of comfort, peace, and freedom, we’re merging; in those countries of persecution, bloodshed, martyrdom, and attack, they’re rebuilding, and the faith is more vibrant than ever.
A Rabbi friend and confidant talked candidly to me. “Timothy, why are you surprised? Look at the Scriptures: when the people of Israel, in what you call the “Old Testament,” were comfortable, prosperous, at peace, and, by earthly standards, well-off, their faith dwindled, their morals collapsed, and they became lethargic spiritually. But, when we Jews were under attack, threatened, and at risk, we reclaimed our faith, were purified of our sins, and came back even stronger, spiritually and morally.”
Reminds me of the comment of Blessed Paul VI: “When it’s easy to be a Catholic, it’s hard to be a good one; but when it’s hard to be a Catholic, it’s easier to be a good one.”
Think about that statement again. Think about our co-religionists “under the sword” throughout the world, yet hopeful, heroic, tenacious in their faith.
Think about us…accepted, safe, prosperous, part of the culture…and in trouble spiritually.
Ask Jesus to keep his promise here in the archdiocese, “to make all things new.”
And beseech the crucified one to protect our persecuted brothers throughout the world, whose fortitude and perseverance put us to shame, whose parishes close, not due to strategic pastoral planning, but because enemies bomb them.