The steep decline of Catholics in the Diocese of Gaylord, and across the United States, is clear to see for any informed Catholic. In the Diocese of Gaylord, with the possible exception of one or 2 parishes (eg, Holy Rosary Church in Cedar), the decline of Catholicism continues unabated. The speed of the decline is increasing as aging Catholics die. It is obvious to see this decrease by observing the ratio of funerals to baptisms, weddings, and other sacraments. Many factors both outside and within the Church have played roles in this decline, but many sincere Catholics believe that forces inside the Church have been the major factors in this decline.
As an example: the Church’s pathetic response to the COVID-19 virus further drove attendance in the gutter; many churches reported a 40% decrease in post-COVID-19 church attendance and this decrease never recovered. The closure of churches sent a clear message (even if it is inaccurate): the Church does not have your back in times of crisis.
Another issue that stems from the church attendance crisis is a vocations crisis. With no seminarians scheduled to be ordained this year in the Diocese, the dire need for priests only gets worse.
What has been the American bishops’ response to these issues? One possible prototype for the future can be seen in the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, which announced that it will shrivel from 102 parishes to 30 parishes, ie, a decrease of 70%, within the next 2 years! This represents one of the most ambitious programs in the United States to decrease the exposure, influence, and presence of Catholicism in a section of America. Certainly it could be argued that some parishes need to close. After all, it’s not just the Catholic Church which is seeing decreased attendance and membership; almost all protestant denominations have even a bigger problem. But in the case of the Diocese of Madison, it is the blatant and overwhelming breadth and speed of the process which is concerning. This could be the fate for dioceses across the United States, including the Diocese of Gaylord.
The problem with this approach is that it is both a response to a problem and a new problem all in one. Although many churches in the Diocese of Madison have few parishioners, the closure of churches in the Diocese will drive many a Catholic, weak in their faith, to give up any vestige of faith all together and quit going to church at all. This will further accelerate the shrinkage of the Diocese. So the reaction to declining church attendance will speed up the decline at the same time!
In any large organization or corporation, if such a shrinkage in the organization or corporation was going on, then the leadership would be held accountable and the membership would rise up and question what in the world is going on. If McDonald’s closed 70% of its restaurants in Wisconsin, the executives of the organization would be held to task and the employees would have a lot to say about it.
Instead, what we are seeing as a reaction from bishops to the decline in Catholicism in the United States is the following: nothing; defeatist rhetoric (there’s nothing we can do); attempts at spinning positive with vague and politically correct cliches (reorganization, new beginnings, revitalization, planning for the future, strengthening our success, realigning, closing loopholes, stopping duplication of efforts, etc).
Nowhere do we hear of a bishop who states the following: “We should not close churches. We should fill them with new converts and reverts to the faith.” Where is the evangelization? Where is the passion for the truth, for converts, and for growing the Church?
This plan in the Diocese of Madison may very well be used by other dioceses in the near future to deal with this crisis. The Diocese of Gaylord is already small, but unless parishes close, this Diocese will soon have more than the much larger Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, which encompasses a much larger population than the Diocese of Gaylord. Will the Diocese of Gaylord succumb to the same fate? Will Bishop Walsh be able to evangelize and promote what he famously stated at his installation Mass: “The Church has what the world needs”? Or will the Diocese of Gaylord be absorbed into another Diocese?
Please continue to pray for vocations and for sound leadership of Bishop Walsh.