I attended Mass today at a mid-island parish founded in 1914. The age of the church building was uncertain. It looked old from the outside, but the interior had some modern elements. Overall it was quite attractive, with beautiful stained glass windows and traditional Stations of the Cross. The mass was attended by about 200 people. About 65% seemed to be in their 60s and 70s, 25% in their middle age, with the rest a smattering of young families, which was surprising since this parish also has a school. The priest was American and quite young, perhaps no more than 35, so I was eager to hear him speak. Although it was obvious that he had faith, he really said nothing of any consequence. With tomorrow being the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he noted how Mary needed to be extremely holy in order to bear our Lord, and that we all need to let God into our hearts this Christmas season. That was it. It wasn't a stupid sermon; it wasn't heterodox; it was just extremely disappointing. The choice of music was uninspiring, rather than banal. The parish has a Bible study and some brief hours of Eucharistic adoration and novena which are, no doubt, attended solely by senior citizens, judging by the makeup of the congregation. Still, it seemed like the church was thriving, at least by the low standards of anemic modern American Catholicism. They paid off their debt and they were able to send over $8,000 to the Filipino typhoon victims. But when all the seniors die off, who will pick up the slack?
To me, this parish is at a place where a lot of failing parishes were 20 years ago. By the numbers it is successful. A stable neighborhood has resulted in a school with enough enrollment to pay for itself. The number of parishioners are enough to sustain the parish and throw a few nice parties a year. The people are cheerful rather than spiritually fervent in any way. Then the old folks start dying off. The young people go to high school and college, move away from home and fall away from the faith. If they marry at all, they marry late and artificially limit their families. Of the few that retain the faith, they will live somewhere else. A certain percentage of the retirees start moving to New Jersey or Florida. And then all it will take will be a city social service agency placed nearby, or a few dark faces moving in, and the neighborhood will quickly "change," and this model parish will then resemble St. Peter's or Immaculate Conception or St. Mary's. We've seen it all happen before.