When Your Parish Is Closing and Your Heart Is Breaking

Here in the Northeast, as in other parts of the country, the Catholic Church is in transition. In my own Archdiocese of Hartford, many parishes are closing. We have fewer priests, but we also have fewer Catholics. Closing or merging one hundred parishes allows us to band together in the parishes that remain – to worship, to learn, and to be together in larger, more robust communities.

But this transition does not come without controversy and heartache. I am familiar with both. I grew up in an Episcopal parish, and the church building itself was my second home. Besides the usual liturgies and classes and youth groups, I often went there after school and did my homework. I stayed for evening prayer in the chapel. I knew the people. I was comfortable there and welcome. But all of this changed while I was in high school. Two of our priests and many families in the parish (including my own), struck out on a new adventure: we were going to become Catholics. But this meant leaving my parish, my home. It meant leaving something so beautiful and familiar to me.

I know how you feel.

The thought of never seeing that crucifix again, or walking the path of those stations, or hearing that organ, broke my heart. There would be other crucifixes and stations. There would be other organs. But there would not be that one. The thought of never sitting in that garden, or kneeling in that confessional, or laughing with a friend in that kitchen, broke my heart. There would be other kitchens and confessionals. There would be other gardens. But there would not be that one.

Places can start to fit you, like comfortable clothes. You know how the place feels. You know what happened there.  You happened there. You planted those flowers. You sorted those cans in the parish food pantry. You drank coffee there. You took communion there. You made friends and had life-changing conversations and prayed and worshiped there. You gazed out that window and sat in that chapel and lit those candles. You learned, and questioned, and accepted. That place was where you became a Christian.

Don’t let anyone tell you that buildings don’t matter. Of course they don’t matter as much as people and communities do. Of course they don’t matter as much as your faith and your beliefs do. Of course they don’t matter as much as your resilience and your resolve do. But they do matter. And losing them is like losing a friend, or a loved one, or a beautiful memory.

And so it is natural, and normal, and even necessary, to grieve and to be sad. But in this grief, do not go your own way. In this grief, turn back to your community. Turn back to your Church. Turn back toward your people, and not away by yourself.  Find the thing that grew in your heart as you lived and breathed in that building. The thing that grew in you was love. This is the precious piece, the piece you must take with you to your new home, your new building. 

For there are many gifts that human beings are given, and many attitudes that we may choose to adopt.  But there is only one that always heals and points forward. There is only one that always brings peace, even if that peace takes time. That gift, that attitude, is love. Of all the gifts our parish communities can have – all the charisms, programs, ministries and funds – there is none so great and so necessary as love. Greater even than working miracles, or leading or teaching, greater even than prophecy.  Naming these fine things, St. Paul wrote, “But I will show you a still more excellent way.”  This most excellent way is love – patient and kind, not insisting on its own way, not resenting. Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things, hopes all things. Love never ends.

We will mourn what we leave behind. But we will go forward with our love for one another still intact. And by this love, they will know that we are Christians.

Jesus the Good Shepherd  by Maurice Denis (1903). Courtesy  Sacred Art Pilgrim . Jesus does not wish to lose a single sheep. 

Jesus the Good Shepherd by Maurice Denis (1903). Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim. Jesus does not wish to lose a single sheep.