It has been a rough week for the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts. Mirroring similar processes that have occurred across the country, the Most Rev. Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell announced closures and mergers of parishes that will impact 22 faith communities. The hardest hit was the city of Chicopee which will go from ten to five parishes. This latest surge of closings follows ten closings that took place January 1st in other sections of the Diocese. It has been a long, painful process that began two years ago with an in-depth study of the viability of all the parishes in the Diocese followed by listening sessions with various groups, both clergy and lay. Everyone knew it was coming, yet the pain and shock are still there. The realization that parishes, which often feel like second homes, are coming to an end, is a sad one. I am not immune to that pain. While my current parish will continue and hopefully prosper, the parish I grew up in and made my sacraments in will be closing its doors.
The simple reality is that there were simply too many churches for not enough Catholics. One stretch of road in Chicopee featured three different ethnic parishes. One hundred years ago, this was desirable. It can no longer be justified by either economic or pastoral considerations. Bishop McDonnell acknowledges that these closings are difficult. He stated that he realizes that church buildings often serve as “memory boxes” for life’s significant moments. He urged all of us to remember, however, that those memories exist forever in our minds. They are not tied to the physical buildings. He also invited us to remember that Christians are a pilgrim people. Our ancestors traveled here over the past two hundred years and established new faith communities far from their native lands. We now have the challenge of building new faith communities of our own.
All of this prompts the question, what does it mean to be Church, to be the people of God? We are a Christian people who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We believe that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We gather around the Eucharistic table and celebrate that reality. It shouldn’t matter who we are sitting next to or what building we are in. We are all one family. This reconfiguration of our parishes is an occasion of grief, but it is also an opportunity to rebuild our community of faith on stronger footing. It is an invitation to create new bonds in our parish families.
The closures were announced at all masses this Sunday. The mood was somber and reflective. In the midst of it all, however, a young child showed the way. It was the memorial acclamation and the choir sang out, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” As the music faded, a toddler screamed out “Yeah!” While no doubt his mother immediately tried to quiet him, that child, the future of our Church, proclaimed a great reality. That statement is the hallmark of our faith. To be Church is to gather together with others who share and celebrate our faith. Our Church will continue and thrive. May God bless us during this difficult transition.