When I was growing up in the late 1950’s and 1960’s the Catholic Church was booming in western New York. I attended a Catholic primary school where we had eight Franciscan nuns for teachers. There was one lay person who taught kindergarten but all the rest of the instructional staff were nuns. Every week one of the diocesan priests would come to our room and teach us about our religion. It was great. We got to know all of them. They were young men fresh from the seminary. I loved every one of them. We had Mass every friday in our cafetorium at the school. In eighth grade many of us made the decision to go on to Catholic high school.
Catholic high school in nearby Olean, New York was staffed by Franciscan Friars and Allegany Franciscan nuns. There were a few layman who were teaching there but for the most part we continued our formation in both the church and as Franciscan young adults. In the nearly forty years since that time there have been tremendous changes in the church. The paucity of vocations to the religious life has become a blight that threatens the very existence of parishes in small towns in western New York and even in the nearby City of Buffalo. The diocese of Buffalo doesn’t have enough priests to fill all the parishes and each year more and more parishes are closed and local Catholics must travel elsewhere for the sacraments.
This week at St. Philomena’s Parish in Franklinville, Fr. Mike will bid his congregation good-bye as he retires. The future for Catholics in Franklinville and nearby Machias is in doubt. Where will these people go? What changes will they make to their lives? What is happening? No one really knows any of these answers, but safe to say the face of the church will change.
Today I was thinking of St. Francis as he prayed before the San Damiano Cross in the crumbling roadside chapel. “Francis, go and rebuild my church, for as you can see it is falling into ruin.” The worldwide Catholic church continues to grow and thrive. In other countries vocations to the priesthood and religious life are growing but not here in the United States. Why?