The transitioning church
It’s not the norm when the Diocese of Providence calls a “town hall meeting.” Town hall meetings are commonly events where people air their concerns and ideas before elected officials. But a town hall meeting is the forum Bishop Thomas Tobin has selected to address the change the Catholic Church is experiencing.
The statistics outline the story, although they can’t express the personal feelings of those who have grown up in a parish and feel it is as much a part of their lives as family. As provided by the diocese at a “town hall meeting” of Warwick parishes last Wednesday, diocesan mass attendance for a single weekend in 2005 was 126,900. By 2013 it dropped to 105,100. In 1975, 64 percent of births were baptized Catholics. By 2012, the number dropped to 28 percent.
Not only are the numbers of Catholics attending mass dropping, but so, too, are the seminarians who have chosen to make God’s calling their vocation. A total of 63 priests will become eligible for retirement in the next eight years, yet there are only 18 seminarians, meaning a potential shortage of 45 priests.
Bishop Tobin outlined the problem in a November 2015 letter to the Priests of the Deanery, writing that the church faces a decline in priests as well as “changing demographics, lack of sacramental practice among the faithful and financial stresses placed upon our parishes and schools.” He appointed an expanded Pastoral Planning Committee to help parishes plan for the future and assist them “as they go through times of transition.”
Warwick is the third community where the diocese has held a town hall meeting. Similar meetings have been held in West Warwick, Coventry and Woonsocket. The message that this is a process of inclusion, not a top-down directive, and the desired outcome is more vibrant parishes is consistent. It is also clear that the diocese plans to conduct similar meetings in other communities.
What the Catholic Church faces is not unique. While some churches can attest to growing numbers, they would appear to be in the minority. Aging congregations and diminishing resources are not issues defined by faith. What is happening in Rhode Island Catholic churches is being experienced in Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues.
Bishop Tobin’s approach is to recognize the challenge and call on parishes to work collectively in finding solutions. To assist and borrow from what parishes in Woonsocket, West Warwick and Coventry are considering, the diocese has provided a list of possible actions from shared pulpits to the consolidation of facilities and the closure of churches.
Many of those possibilities do not uniquely apply to Catholic churches. They may well apply to other denominations.
For these possibilities to succeed, however, will require commitment, talent and faith. The town hall meeting is a good place to start. No one person or group has all the answers, and what is happening in Warwick bears watching by congregations across the state.