As a teenager, I looked forward to the American Dream: coming home to a tidy house behind a white picket fence, to a lovely wife and well-ordered children. But I became a priest instead of a family man. I live in untidy parishes rather than well-ordered homes, and “here comes everyone” are my children. But I still dream of white picket fences. What measure of “success”, actually, can a priest in a post-Christian society expect?
Fifteen years ago I was assigned to a large suburban parish, in which that dream was realised to some degree. While many American parishes struggled, ours doubled in Mass attendance, activity and income. We ran a well-oiled machine, with high levels of satisfaction and a sense of home. I can attribute our “success” to various initiatives such as our Perpetual Adoration chapel, traditional music and liturgy, and lots of hard work developing a spirituality of Catholic stewardship. Then there were the simple demographics: people were flooding into our area to escape skyrocketing housing costs in San Francisco.
Three years ago I took on a city parish. Large Catholic families once filled Star of the Sea Church’s thousand seats on Sundays, and 20 fresh-faced nuns taught 900 children in our school. By the time I arrived in 2014, however, most of the Irish and Italian families had moved to the suburbs. Few of the newcomers were Catholic, and few of today’s Catholics attend Mass anyway.
Even as families move out, young adults are flooding into San Francisco (some describe the city as a one big singles’ bar). Many spend 14 to 16 hours a day in the self-contained work environments that Google and Facebook have built to meet their every need. It’s not that these bright young people don’t want God; they just don’t have time for him.
Thus, with twice the seating capacity and a tenth of the Mass attendance of my suburban parish, my new city parish seemed dark and empty. I began to lose my nerve and wondered if managed decline was the best I could hope for.
I reread St John Paul’s last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, which opens with “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist.” So we made our first priority what is most obvious, the Holy Eucharist.
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