Across the United States, changing demographics and a growing priest shortage mean many parishes have been losing members, and dioceses say this is forcing them to close down churches.
This is presented as a painful, but necessary, reality.
However, a new documentary looking at the phenomena says the process of closing churches is a “grave spiritual abuse.”
“Closing a church is a tragic, heartbreaking and deeply sad phenomenon,” said Viktoria Somogyi, the producer and director of Foreclosing on Faith.
First released in Oct. 2017, the film has been making the rounds of the film festival circuit. Last week, the film won Best Documentary, Best Producer, and Best Educational Film at the Christian Film Festival in Virginia.
Somogyi is Hungarian and has worked for a decade at the Hungarian section of Vatican Radio. During that time, she has also followed the struggles of Hungarian-American parishes in the United States, many of which have faced closure by their bishops.
“I received more and more news about the closing of these beautiful, old, historical and hugely important churches for the Hungarian communities. When I asked the question why, the answer was always the same, which seemed too simplistic: The old immigrant generations are slowly dying out and there’s no replacement, there is no money to maintain their churches, no priests from the home country to serve these communities,” she told Crux.
She said she wanted to go deeper, and discovered the reason was often about something else: Money.
Dioceses often needed funds to cover abuse settlements, financial mismanagement, and other budget issues. Often, the churches being closed down weren’t dying, but were sitting on very valuable property.
“Consulting companies like the Reid Group, Meitler and Partners Edge (a division of TeamWorks International) have been brought in to ease the process of church closings,” Somogyi said.
“Many of the parishioners who have worked with them find that the consulting companies bring their own agenda, and they are involved to make the process of church closings seem more consultative and collaborative but decisions about the closings seem to have been made already before the consultation at the parish level even starts,” she said. “So regardless of what parishioners send in as answers to the questionnaires the consultants distribute, there is no chance to save their parish if it is targeted.”
Somogyi said church closings are now rare in Hungary and other parts of Central Europe, although she said this is also because the government helps maintain the buildings as a part of the country’s cultural heritage.
She said the Church in the United States should seek every alternative before shuttering a church.
“It is important to distinguish between the closing of a parish and closing a church. Closing a parish is less problematic as it can be closed while its church can be left open as a shrine, an oratory or a chapel,” she said.
“Destroying a home – a spiritual one in the case of these faith communities – causes an enormous shock, inflicting a huge and inestimable crisis on people at many levels, which cannot be underestimated when such decisions are made by those responsible,” Somogyi said.
“All of the stories are very tragic and heartbreaking … because you cannot undo or erase the pain, the suffering and the shock that had been caused to these communities.”
Here are excerpts of Somogyi’s conversation with Crux.
Crux: How did you get involved in the project?
Somogyi: Since 2006 I have been following the life of Hungarian-American parishes in the United States and after a while I received more and more news about the closing of these beautiful, old, historical and hugely important churches for the Hungarian communities. When I asked the question why, the answer was always the same, which seemed too simplistic: The old immigrant generations are slowly dying out and there’s no replacement, there is no money to maintain their churches, no priests from the home country to serve these communities. I wanted to go deeper and understand better the phenomenon.
The film project originally started off as one focusing exclusively on uncovering the causes for the closing of Hungarian parishes in the United States, since the documentary is financed by the Hungarian Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund’s Patronage Program (MTVA Mecenatúra) and the National Cultural Fund of Hungary (NKA). But the life and survival of ethnic parishes are strongly tied to what’s happening in the wider Catholic Church. Consequently, I extended the topic to the church closing crisis in general in the United States, not only in ethnic parishes.
Can you give us a quick background of the problem: Why churches are being shut?
Apart from the official reasons given to close churches (shortage of priests, lack of funds at the parishes and lack of vibrancy – which in many cases do not apply to the churches that are being closed), the Catholic Church in the United States closes churches for financial reasons: Sex abuse settlements, financial difficulties, mismanagement of finances at the dioceses.
I found that many of the faithful felt that the way the church closing process has been carried out was a grave spiritual abuse on the faithful and extremely destructive to the Catholic Church. Statistics prove that 40 percent of the faithful leave the Catholic Church after their church is closed because they are so scandalized by the process.
What could be done to save these churches?
There are many alternatives, a lot could be done to avoid closings.
It is important to distinguish between the closing of a “parish” and closing a “church.” Closing a parish is less problematic as it can be closed while its church can be left open as a shrine, an oratory or a chapel, as Brody Hale, an expert on church closings says. Canon law provides many alternatives to the complete closure of a Catholic church building.
Closing a church is a tragic, heartbreaking and deeply sad phenomenon. Such a phenomenon is unimaginable in Hungary and in Central and Eastern Europe in general, also because the state helps to maintain churches as it recognizes their essential role for the common good of the society and it values them as part of the nation’s cultural and historical heritage.
In my opinion, church closings are only really acceptable when they result from people completely abandoning a church. Even when individuals go to a bishop and ask for the closure of a church because they can’t maintain it, the bishop should make sure that no one else is prepared to pay the cost of maintaining the church as a shrine, chapel, etc. before closing it. Too often, Catholics who would pay the costs associated with retaining a church for Roman Catholic sacred purposes are prevented from doing so by bishops convinced that closure is the only option. Many Catholics are not even aware of the alternatives to closure that exist, Brody Hale thinks.
Consulting companies like the Reid Group, Meitler and Partners Edge (a division of TeamWorks International) have been brought in to ease the process of church closings.
Senior Vatican officials I talked to see the role of these consultants as questionable at best, destructive at worst. They claim the consultancies should not be involved at all and that church closings are a destruction from within the Church.
Many of the parishioners who have worked with them find that the consulting companies bring their own agenda and they are involved to make the process of church closings seem more consultative and collaborative but decisions about the closings seem to have been made already before the consultation at the parish level even starts. So regardless of what parishioners send in as answers to the questionnaires the consultants distribute, there is no chance to save their parish if it is targeted.
In some locations, especially in the United States where there are dormant periods for neighborhoods, which then become repopulated and upscale again, Catholics should be encouraged to form groups to maintain churches for sacred purposes such as sites of private prayer and other gatherings of the faithful, and for efforts such as the “Mass Mob” movement. Mass Mobs raise funds to revitalize churches, and they bring them back to the collective imagery of the society, to those people too who are not necessarily Christians or believers, but they love art and beauty and care about the architectural heritage of their neighborhoods. Keeping the churches present visually in our surroundings can indirectly keep God’s presence and therefore hope alive in our society. In a secular society beauty and art can still draw people closer to God, to the transcendent as Pope Benedict XVI said.
Opposition to church closings is largely based on the fact that churches are sacred places forever and it is not up to others to decide about their existence according to their momentary needs. Churches are sacred places where, in the long 2,000-year tradition of the Catholic Church, the faithful connect with the transcendent, with the sacred. In my opinion, the loss of the sense of the sacred in the Catholic Church lies at the heart of the problem of church closings. The rest is just a symptom, consequence of that, and that’s what we show in the film.
In the good examples (in places like Indianapolis, Sioux Falls, Colorado Springs, Buffalo, New York, Camdon, Gary, Miami, Detroit, Kansas City) bishops went out to the parishes, sat down with the parishioners, openly talked about the problem they were facing. They asked what they needed the money for and in collaboration with the faithful they worked out the best solutions for the bishop and the parish, and it was not closed. As a result, from an institutional prospective the harmony between the hierarchy and the faithful has been preserved, unity has been strengthened, collaboration enhanced.
What I’ve noticed is that enforced church closings deepen divisions, increase distrust of the hierarchy, and damage the faith of the faithful. Coming from an ex-communist country it is hard not to see the parallels and the damage such tactics can inflict on a community. Dialogue, honest conversation, and cooperation are shown to work, not church closings.
What do you consider the most tragic story you talk about?
It would be very difficult to pick one story. Destroying a home – a spiritual one in the case of these faith communities – causes an enormous shock, inflicting a huge and inestimable crisis on people at many levels, which cannot be underestimated when such decisions are made by those responsible.
All of the stories are very tragic and heartbreaking – even those which reopen – because you cannot undo or erase the pain, the suffering and the shock that had been caused to these communities. Only when you walk with or accompany these afflicted people through their plight, you really feel the gravity of the damage that is being imposed on them.
If we reduce judging the phenomenon of church closings to pure numbers and statistics in an Excel file, only the main point is missed, that is they are primarily and foremost spiritual realities. To me, closing a church is about the destruction of a group of faithful and a very important community building force, furthermore it is the dismantling of the base of the Catholic Church and we can’t even entertain the idea of blaming it on anyone outside the Church. Many believers, priests, even cardinals consider it a destruction from within.
What unique perspective did you bring from your European background?
As a Hungarian, a Central Eastern European looking at an American reality, I think it gave me the advantage to analyze the phenomenon as an outsider with no ties attached. In many Central European countries, it is still absolutely impossible to imagine that our bishops would close churches. The phenomenon itself doesn’t exist. In Hungary bishops do everything to save churches and find a solution in collaboration with the State, if necessary, to preserve them. (In America in many cases wealthy Catholics would be more than happy to step in to save them but they are not allowed by the bishops.) So, I arrived with this historical and cultural experience in the United States to uncover the reasons behind the phenomenon.
I discovered by visiting Hungarian and various Central and Eastern European ethnic parishes, that these immigrants approach the question in a similar way, saying during the Soviet occupation not even the communists destroyed churches in Hungary, except for one in Budapest, which caused huge discontent, and here it’s the bishops who take away our churches…
Do you get the sense that people care more about heritage when it’s in another country? After all, when the Islamic State knocks down a historic Church it’s a war crime. But when the local bishop does it, it’s just business.
It seems to me that the parishioners of these beautiful old historical churches in America do care about the heritage and fight to save them, many try to make them heritage sites recognized by the state but maybe the problem is that the decisionmakers have other priorities. Let me cite Peter Borré, a canonical advisor from the film: “So what’s happening here in finance terms, and this is a lesson for the future, is that you’re selling permanent assets, the spiritual infrastructure of the Church, the parishes. You’re selling them off to meet current operational costs. That’s not sustainable.”