Suburbanization and the declining importance of the parish
If you have ever toured the European countryside, you are familiar with the layout of the traditional farming village. Designed before the advent of automobiles, the towns are small clusters with houses grouped close together, surrounded by communal fields. The parish church is typically located off the central square, within walking distance from every area of the community.
The church was not only the geographical center of the village, but also the main meeting place for the people of the town. In the pre-modern period, people would gather for Mass every Sunday and holy day, and they would return repeatedly for devotions, processions, and other public prayers. In short, the parish was a central hub for spiritual and social activities.
The rise of industrialization ended the farming village’s place as the main organizational unit of European society. Starting in the late 1700s, former farmers rushed into urban areas to find new jobs, and the mass migration destroyed the local, religious culture of the village. In the cities, young people found themselves unrestricted from traditional moral parameters, no longer a part of religious community, and susceptible to new secular ideologies, such as Marxism. Many of the new, urban poor, therefore, dropped their attachment to religion.
The fall of the village parish is part of the theory of secularization, often overshadowed by more well-known elements of the thesis, including the modern state's replacement of the church’s role in education, health care, and welfare, and the secular intellectual shift during the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. The link between industrialization and secularization, however, was not lost on some contemporary Catholics who created the Catholic Land Movement in order to recreate the traditional farming community as a means to revive the faith, a movement that ultimately failed.
The American story runs counter the European experience as our country was founded by primarily by agrarian Protestants. Catholic immigrants did not arrive en masse until after industrialization and settled predominately in urban areas. Unlike their European counterparts, American Catholics recreated their parish communities in urban areas, spurred on by intense anti-Catholicism that excluded them from most of society. In cities across the United States, Catholic ghettos grew in numbers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, organized along ethnic lines and centered around the parish church.
The ethnic, urban parishes had separate schools, associations, social clubs, festivals, and a slew of religious activities such as Masses, novenas, and Forty-Hours' devotions. At the height of these parishes, typical American Catholics lived in close proximity to their church and visited it several times a day for educational, spiritual, and social activities. Outside of the home, their lives revolved around the parish.
The typical American parish began to unravel in the 1950s as Catholics moved out of the city to the suburbs, a result of post-war prosperity and raising tensions in urban areas. Suburbanites might live a ten-to-fifteen-minute car ride away from their parish, nixing frequent visits to it, and they more frequently opt to send their children to public schools instead of parochial schools, further rupturing the connection between parishioner and parish. Consequently, today's Catholics only visit their parish for Mass on Sunday.
The new suburban attitude compounded the negative effects of the new geographic layout of the parish community. Prosperity did not bring a fulfillment of material desires, but a want for more. People’s highest concerns were for a larger house, a nicer car, and more household items; thus, materialism supplanted religion. In the 1950s, American had just survived the Great Depression and World War II, and Americans were living a much more comfortable life, a life which did not need spiritual intercession; accordingly, attendance at parish events declined. The suburban life also offered much more competition to parish activities. Children were placed into recreational sports, music and dance classes, and a number of other activities. Families were so busy that attending a church activity on weeknight became impossible.
It is bleak period for parish life. While some parishes are thriving, many urban churches are closing and some suburban parishes are being merging. Sadly, most Catholics think they are “active” members of their community, if they attend a donut social after Mass.
Reestablishing vibrant parishes is fundamental to reviving Catholic culture. Primarily, the local church needs to be a destination for prayer. In addition to attending Mass, parishioners should be encouraged to frequent confession, adoration, stations, and other religious devotions. Parishes also needs to be reestablished as a place for education, providing accessible and authentic Catholic education for school-age children and ongoing adult education with Bible studies and other classes. Next, parishes would benefit from the establishment of numerous associations: youth, young adult, women’s and men’s groups. Membership in an organization, such as the Knights of Columbus or Legion of Mary, undoubtedly brings an individual closer to the parish community. Lastly, parish communities could add a social dimension by sponsoring more events like movie nights, dinners, or dances. It is the duty of the laity to help organize all of these events, support them by being present, and encourage other individuals to attend them as well.
Like the European case, the decline of the parish was only one piece of the puzzle in a increasingly secular America. The cultural revolution of the 1960s and confusion over the implementation of the Second Vatican Council added to the reduction of parish activities. Nonetheless, I see the revival of the parish as a tightly knit community - physically, spiritually, and socially - as foundational to the resurgence of American Catholicism.
7/12/2012 3:07:53 PM
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi