"In my little town I grew up believing God keeps his eye on us all...nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town..."
My family and I went back to my little hometown of Manitowoc, WI for my niece Melissa's wedding. Melissa was a beautiful bride and her marriage to Shawn was a joyous occasion. The weather was gorgeous after a week of steady rain. It was a lovely day. But, there was something about the day that broke my heart and marred that joy.
(Sacred Heart Parish dedicated in 1905 by Archbishop Messmer of Milwaukee, and school built 1908)
When I was growing up in the late 1960's through the early 1980's, Manitowoc was a thriving little factory town of about 40,000 people. My home parish was Sacred Heart where I attended first through sixth grade. Today, Sacred Heart Parish is no more, along with several other Catholic parishes and schools in the community where factories have shut down and the economy has long been depressed. In fact, all but three of the Catholic churches in Manitowoc have closed their doors. The community has four priests serving one parish (St. Francis of Assisi) and I'm told that the reason is because Catholics aren't going to church anymore. Why should the churches remain open if they are always nearly empty? Thankfully, one of the remaining churches is Holy Innocents parish which was built by my great-uncle, Fr. Edward Radey. It was nice to see some tangible evidence that his life's work remains alive today.
(Holy Innocents Parish built in 1933 and dedicated in 1950)
Then again, the priest shortage is another contributing issue. At the wedding reception I was telling my sister Diann about the new associate pastor at my parish. I was speaking of the blessing of having an associate pastor who includes the psalms in the daily Mass (our previous associate skipped over them) and who washes his hands before the consecration of the Mass; I know it's a little thing, but I like it. And Diann countered with, "You have two priests? That's kind of greedy, don't you think?"
I laughed at her question, but when the realization of her words sunk in, I laughed no more. At my sister's parish there is one priest who is shared by three churches and sadly, that is becoming the norm in more and more places. How hard these men must work to serve those whose faith remains and who long to praise and worship Him within the heart of the Church at their neighborhood parish. Sadly, I hear it told more and more often that daily Mass is a rarity and there are fewer weekend Masses offered at many churches. I guess I have been quite sheltered and spoiled to belong to a large parish that still has two priests, four weekend Masses and a daily 7 AM Mass as well.
As my family and I arrived home, I couldn't help but feel discouraged and defeated. I spend so much time trying to climb inside of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to feel His love for me, but maybe that's been a waste of time. Maybe what I should be doing is trying to get inside of his head. Tonight I stood in front of my life-size picture of His Sacred Heart and asked, "What do you want? What do we have to do to keep Your Church alive and vibrant? How can we fill the pews and bring in more good and holy priests? How can we please you? What is your will?"
Waiting for His response to those difficult questions is going to take great patience and trust, after all, those churches didn't close overnight, the lack of faith that caused so many to leave the Church wasn't lost in a single event and the shortage of good and holy priests took years to develop. Patience and trust are hard to hold on to when so much emptiness seems to abound.
"Heart of Jesus, our life and resurrection, have mercy on us. In the face of every expression of death, Christ's Heart was deeply moved, and for love of the Father and mankind, his brothers and sisters, he made his life a "combat stupendous" (Roman Missal, Easter Sequence) against death. With a single word he restored physical life to Lazarus, to the son of the widow of Nain, and to the daughter of Jairus; by the strength of his merciful love he gave spiritual life back to Zacchaeus, to Mary of Magdala, to the adulterous woman, and to all those who acknowledged his saving presence." ~Pope John Paul II Prays the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Heart of Jesus, our life and resurrection, have mercy on us; breathe your single word upon your Church, restore our life. Heart of Jesus, our life and resurrection, have mercy on us; strengthen us with your merciful love. Amen.