At a Crossroads

From a restless flock to budget deficits to a startling shortage of priests, the issues facing the Catholic Church in Chicago threaten aspects of its mission. How the church responds will determine its future shape—and how it in turn shapes the city.

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It is a hot July Sunday, and the third Mass of the day is under way at Old St. Patrick’s, the blond-brick, Romanesque-style Catholic church at 700 West Adams Street. The main floor, seating close to 500, is filled aisle-to-aisle with people of all ages. In the large balcony, young parents do their best, with mixed results, to keep their small children occupied. When Mass ends, shortly after a rousing hymn led by the full-voiced eight-person choir, the scene along Desplaines Street suggests the milling humanity after a weekend game at Wrigley Field. It’s the middle of summer and many Chicagoans are off on vacation, but something like this lively gathering unfolds almost every Sunday in this landmarked 1856 building, the oldest public structure in the city. At 4,000 households strong, Old St. Patrick’s is a thriving urban church, site of nearly 350 baptisms and 160 weddings a year. It wasn’t always this way. In 1983, when the Rev. John J. Wall (Father Jack, to all who know him) was assigned to the parish, Old St. Pat’s-once in the center of a working-class Irish ghetto-had only four registered members. But Wall had an idea for “a church for the marketplace,” one that reached out to young adults. “People were starting to ask, What is my life worth? And what is my life work? And how does work fit into my life?” he says. “I wanted to make them church questions.” Wall had success. In 1985, Old St. Pat’s held its first “World’s Largest Block Party,” an event for young singles; the Frances Xavier Warde grammar school opened in 1989, the first new Catholic grade school in the archdiocese in more than 25 years. And even if some parishioners are now moving to the suburbs, Wall doesn’t see that as a problem, either, thanks to the church’s proximity to the expressway. The church’s mailing list holds more than 200 different ZIP Codes. “We’re in one of the oldest parts of the city,” Wall says. “It’s always been a crossroads for metropolitan Chicago. There’s a certain energy that comes from reaching down to the roots.”

Almost nine miles away, in the Far North Side neighborhood of Rogers Park, the heavy wooden doors of St. Jerome, at 1709 West Lunt Avenue, are propped open to catch a breeze. It’s a Saturday night, and the start of an architectural tour of the 1894 church. “It’s such an amazing building, really like a basilica in Rome,” says the Rev. Jeremy Thomas, pastor here for a year and a half. “So we thought, Why not open it up and let people see what’s here?”

Inside, about 70 people, having paid $15 each for the tour, are dwarfed by the mammoth proportions of this Italian Renaissance–style beauty, which seats 1,000 people. Many in the crowd, who are white and range from their late 30s to their 70s, grew up here and went to school at St. Jerome’s (now closed, though the building is rented to a charter school). On Saturdays or Sundays they join the several hundred other parishioners at one of the three English-speaking masses.

Like Old St. Pat’s, St. Jerome’s has gone through both boom and bust. Supported by the large number of Irish, Italian, and Luxembourger settlers of Rogers Park, the church was so popular in the early 1900s that it added the school, a convent, a social center, a sexton’s house, and a rectory. But by the late 1970s, the convent was vacant and the parish had started selling off buildings. The grade school closed in 1991. Today, the church fills up only during the three Spanish-language services on Sunday-and then it’s standing room only.

“This parish is about 85 percent Hispanic now, with the majority of people coming from Mexico,” says Thomas, who is originally from Wales. “We only have 800 registered members, yet the Spanish masses show that over 3,000 people come through the doors every Sunday.” That discrepancy, in part, is because many Hispanic parishioners are too worried about visa problems to officially sign up. “It’s a wonderful parish with a rich history and great people,” says Thomas. “But to a certain degree, it has to rediscover itself.”

While these two venerable parishes appear to be on different paths, their current experience speaks volumes about the state of the Roman Catholic Church in Chicago, and about the trends, needs, and challenges that will determine the future. Long a cultural, educational, and political force in the city, as well as a spiritual guide, the church today confronts a thicket of tough issues. Much of its traditional membership is dispersing or losing the faith. Attendance in many parishes is dropping. Catholic schools and even parishes are being closed. The number of priests and nuns taking vows has slipped steadily. Increasing polarization over issues like the sex abuse scandal, the influence of the laity, and the roles for women threatens to further divide the flock. And yet both Old St. Pat’s and St. Jerome’s have managed to find new faithful to fill the pews.

“We have had a very strong Catholic region here, from the earliest days,” says Jimmy Lago, as chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago its highest-ranking layperson. “The challenge, then, is, how do we think about ourselves for the future?”

The Chicago area is home to 3.4 million Catholics, nearly 40 percent of the population. Close to 2.4 million reside in the Archdiocese of Chicago alone, which includes 372 parishes in Cook and Lake counties. But defining who’s a Catholic today is no easy task. Some of the archdiocese’s numbers come from the Metro Chicago Information Center, a nonprofit group that surveys the population on topics including religious affiliation. Through a process called the October count, a month-long, parish-by-parish survey of churchgoers, the archdiocese determines its attendance, currently placing the number of regulars in a range around 600,000-about 25 percent of Catholics in its territory. For a variety of reasons, that rate of attendance is among the church’s greatest concerns.

“I feel the Catholic Church is out of touch with the everyday concerns of real people,” says Robert Braido, a 34-year-old information technology specialist. Braido was raised as a Catholic, attended a Catholic high school in Mundelein, and graduated from Benedictine University in Lisle. But as a young adult, he found himself disagreeing with the church’s stands on numerous issues, and he also resented the heavy, top-down authority of church hierarchy. “This do-exactly-what-the-pope-says attitude, no questions asked, is not relevant to the genuine issues of your life.”

For many others, the failure to attend Mass is just a casualty of their hectic schedules. “I’m a working girl, and I have a family, and it’s hard for me to fit it in,” says Christine Gilberti, 44, a retail manager who has lived in Chicago for ten years and who belongs to Holy Name Parish downtown-but rarely makes it to Mass. “I love Mass, and consider myself a good Catholic, but I don’t think my attendance will necessarily make a difference. I believe in my heart I won’t be stopped at the [heavenly] gates.”

The enormous variety of today’s Catholic experience has led to some divisions-probably most pronounced among those who consider themselves the most devout. “You’ve got a small but very adamant group of people who believe in reform and want to talk about married priests, women as priests, inclusion of gays, or birth control,” says Robert McClory, a Northwestern University professor emeritus of journalism and the author of numerous books on Catholicism. “And you’ve got a small but equally fervent group of people who want to go back to the traditional way things used to be. In between, you have this huge number of people who call themselves Catholic, go to church from once a year to once a week, who don’t want to fight about any of this.”

Part of that large in-between group is the hatch-match-dispatch crowd-those who get involved only for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. A great number are sometimes referred to as “Chreasters,” those who attend church on the major holidays. Probably even more prevalent are the à la carte, or “cafeteria,” Catholics, who simply pick and choose what parts of the church’s teachings they are going to follow.

The church’s statistics say Latinos make up 38 percent of the archdiocese (very likely an undercount, according to Father Claudio Diaz, head of the archdiocese’s office for Hispanic Catholics), and by 2030 they are expected to constitute one-half of the faithful here. For more than a decade, all seminarians being trained through the archdiocese have been required to study Spanish as a language. This rising Latino culture is sure to transform the church just as the wave of Irish immigration did a century ago. Already, many parishes are mixing Mexico’s Day of the Dead festivities with the traditional Catholic All Saints’ Day.

Today, after the death of Pope John Paul II and the beginning of a new papacy under Pope Benedict XVI, Catholics find themselves at a crossroads: Will the church be an all-inclusive, many-voiced organization? Or will it opt to be smaller, more exclusive and conservative? Can it make itself into a church for the current marketplace? Or does it even want to?

The Archdiocese of Chicago is among the healthiest in the nation, yet it operates at a deficit. Can it afford to continue its multifaceted mission? All of these questions are pertinent to the global church, but considering the huge impact the church has always had here, the topics have particular resonance for Chicago. Right now, the answers are unclear. But how Chicago’s Catholics deal with these essential questions will indicate the path-and the hope-of the future.

 

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