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.
Who Are the Catholics
With the exception, perhaps, of city government, no institution in Chicago is more visible than the Catholic Church. An evening glance over the rooftops of the city reveals a shimmering grid of amber streetlights, dotted seemingly throughout by steeples jutting toward the sky. More of them, by far, sit atop Catholic churches than those of any other denomination.
The Archdiocese of Chicago ranks as the third most populous in the country, behind only New York and Los Angeles, which have grown with a steady influx of Latino immigrants. The archdiocese does not include such big Catholic communities as Aurora, Downers Grove, Elmhurst, Naperville, and St. Charles; add in the roster of the faithful just from DuPage and Will counties (in the Diocese of Joliet since 1948) and the Catholic population in the area approaches three million. By comparison, in Lake, Cook, and DuPage combined, the Presbyterian Church serves 40,000 faithful. The Jewish population of metropolitan Chicago totals about 270,500.
For much of the 20th century, the citizens of Chicago knew the geography of the city by parish rather than neighborhood, a cultural signature that is fast becoming obsolete. From the 1930s through the 1950s, if people were from St. Agnes of Bohemia, they were Czech, living in the neighborhood known today as Little Village. Saying you lived in Bridgeport-a neighborhood practically synonymous with “Irish”-did not impart nearly as much information as saying you were from Nativity of Our Lord (the so-called “shanty” Irish), or St. Bridget’s (“lace-curtain” Irish) or St. Barbara’s (Polish, and likely living on the west side of South Halsted Street).
Today, the archdiocese is 54 percent white, a mix of Polish, Irish, German, and other descendants mostly of European origin. African Americans total less than 4 percent of the Catholic population, though they make up nearly a third of Chicago. Asian Americans represent slightly more than 4 percent of the archdiocese, and their numbers are growing.
From his fourth-floor office in the Pastoral Center, a modest-looking six-story building just east of the Magnificent Mile on Superior Street, Jimmy Lago presides over much of the worldly business of the Roman Catholic Church in Chicago. A DePaul graduate with an advanced degree in social work from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Lago worked under Cardinal John Cody as a lobbyist and under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as head of Catholic Charities. Cardinal George appointed him chancellor in 2000.
Off the same hallway as Lago’s office sits that of Father George Rassas, the vicar general, who presides over all matters dealing with the priesthood and worship. Ordained at Mundelein Seminary in 1968, he served as the pastor at St. Mary’s, a large church in Lake Forest, from 1990 until last November, when Cardinal George asked him to serve as vicar general. Rassas represents the fourth generation in his family to produce a priest; members of his clan have had a connection to the archdiocese since 1871. The archdiocese is divided into six vicariates-“pie-shaped wedges coming off of the mouth of the Chicago River, sort of,” says David Schwartz, associate director of the archdiocese’s office of research and planning. Each vicariate has an auxiliary bishop who reports to Rassas.
Lago and Rassas rank on the organizational chart just below Cardinal Francis George, who has final authority on nearly all matters of the local church. The archdiocese says it employs 15,495 people (about the same number of local employees as at Abbott Laboratories), making it the 11th largest employer in the six-county Chicago metropolitan area. The archdiocese’s annual operating budget is $1 billion.
The challenges of administering the complex, diverse community here reflect in many ways the difficulties facing the global Catholic Church. In the wake of the recent abuse scandals involving priests, attendance at U.S. Catholic churches fell noticeably. Donations, by far the church’s primary revenue stream, slipped. Although the late Pope John Paul II served as a catalyst for political change, and enjoyed enormous personal popularity, many observers today believe that he signaled a reversal of momentum from the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, the epic gathering of clerics begun in 1962 that set off a variety of liberalizing changes, including increased participation of the laity in church life, addressing social and economic disparities, and the saying of Mass in vernacular languages.
John Paul’s agenda, of course, was maintained by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The liberal wing of the faithful worry that the staunch positions of the church on homosexuality, on the role of women in church life, and on birth control, for instance, constitute a sure path to the church’s withering. Conservatives argue that the slackening of such standards over the past four decades is the source of the church’s problems. Pope Benedict’s assertion that to be repurified the church might have to shrink sounds like a death knell to some, and like church bells to others.
Chicago’s church leadership, traditionally among the strongest in the United States, sees the size, diversity, and challenges as merely the state of things it has inherited. “Our mission is to care for, challenge, comfort whoever chooses to live in Cook or Lake County,” says David Schwartz. “To walk with whoever comes here.”
Priests on the Spot
In June, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met at the Fairmont Hotel on the northern border of Millennium Park, protesters gathered outside each day, with signs calling for the resignation of various cardinals and bishops from all over the country. The signs naming Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston, implored the government to indict him.
“Church bashing is easy sport these days, and I won’t engage in that today,” said James E. Post, president of the Voices of the Faithful, in a speech delivered in Chicago at a Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests national conference a few days before the bishops’ conference convened. “[But] trust in the church, and trust in their leadership of the church, is at, or near, an all-time low.”
By several measures, Chicago has been spared the worst of the abuse scandals of the past five years. A 2004 report from the conference of bishops noted that across the country 4,392 priests were accused of having engaged in sexual abuse of a minor between 1950 and 2002. That number represents 4 percent of the 109,694 priests in active ministry during that time. The U.S. church has spent well over $1 billion on legal fees and settlements in connection with the problem. The Archdiocese of Boston alone has paid out close to $100 million.
Since 1993, the Archdiocese of Chicago has spent just under $30 million on settlements, including $18.2 million during the past fiscal year. Tom Brennan, director of finance for the archdiocese, says the archdiocese plans for the settlements. “We made a promise that none of the money is being taken from current contributions,” he says. “We make those payments only through the sales of undeveloped real estate, or through the proceeds of liability insurance.”
Whether there were fewer abusive priests here or the local church simply maintained better oversight is still a matter of quiet debate, but one hero has emerged, in retrospect-the late Cardinal Bernardin. In 1991, he created an independent commission that searched through records of active priests; its recommendations, implemented in 1992, included the creation of a freestanding review board and a victim assistance ministry, as well as development at Mundelein Seminary of ongoing training and materials for victim assistance. “Chicago was ahead of the curve, if you will,” says Rassas. “When this blew up again all over the country, people began looking to Chicago for the procedures we already had in place.”
Bernardin went further, dismissing 23 priests during what many local Catholics remember as an extraordinarily painful period in the archdiocese’s history. “It must have been very hard for Joseph Bernardin, the kindest and gentlest of men, to remove more than 20 priests from active ministry,” writes the syndicated columnist and local priest Andrew M. Greeley in his book Priests: A Calling in Crisis (2004). Greeley adds that while no system could possibly work perfectly, “the Chicago system . . . works better than anything [in place] for the last ten years in the Northeast.”
In 2002, Cardinal George directed Lago to produce a report on abuse by priests. The final document states that three dozen priests in the archdiocese engaged in inappropriate sexual activity over the preceding 40 years; by comparison, the Boston Globe discovered, church authorities in Boston had settled at least 80 separate abuse suits in just the previous decade.
The scandal “has chastened us, and that’s not necessarily bad,” says Cardinal George. “I have to say that this has changed me an awful lot. It has made me rethink the role of the priest and the role of the bishop and the abuse in ways that don’t directly touch the faith and its content, but certainly touch the exercise of the faith and how we put ourselves together as a church.”
Even the priesthood itself has been terribly damaged. Rassas describes walking down the street and seeing someone stare, and thinking, “What’s in their mind? I’m a priest. I’m not ashamed to be a priest. But we never get away from it.”
“It’s been the tail of the dog that seems to wag everything in the past few years,” says Lago. “And it’s critically important-but it’s not the whole story of the diocese.”
Indeed, the priesthood in Chicago faces a portfolio of other complex pressures. Again, the local church has fared perhaps better than most in adjusting for the so-called priest shortage, but the impact has nonetheless been significant, and the broad trends appear ineluctable. A 1994 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times revealed the average age of priests in the United States to be 54; by 2002, it had risen to nearly 61.
Studies by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reveal similar trends. According to the center’s research, the total number of U.S. priests in 1965 was 58,632; by 2004, that figure had dropped to 43,304. Priestly ordinations declined by nearly half over the same period. (The U.S. church is facing an even more dramatic decline in the number of nuns, whose average age has climbed to 69. See She Left, on page 105.)
In May, the archdiocese ordained 16 men here, trumpeting it as the largest class in the country-and Chicago’s largest in 20 years. Still, it seems a small supplement to the archdiocese’s 550 active priests, most of whom serve in parishes (and many of whom are overstretched). “The average size of a parish at the mo- ment is about 1,500 families,” says Rassas. “That represents 6,000 people, 7,000 people. For a parish to get an associate-an additional priest-if there is already one pastor, the number has to get up to 1,700 or 1,800 families before they’ll consider you. And how is one person going to minister to 1,700 families?”
What’s more, the dispersion of Catholic ethnic groups has made serving the faithful more complex. Mass is offered in the archdiocese each week in 20 languages. The archdiocese Web site operates in English, Spanish, and Polish-and so do many churches. As a group, ordained priests, too, are far more diverse than in previous decades. And as the church population continues to grow in Africa and Latin America, the number of priests from those areas also increases. “Now we’re getting most of our vocations from overseas,” Rassas says. “In next year’s [Mundelein] class, with 12, there are two total with English as their first language.”
The general slackening of cultural mores, some say, has made it increasingly difficult for young men to choose a path of poverty and celibacy. In a world gone increasingly secular, the vocation does not command the appeal and respect it once enjoyed. Others have said that doctrinal tightening and the church’s reluctance to change have put off a generation accustomed to looser standards.
In his book Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption Into the Catholic Church (2002), Michael S. Rose asserts that the liberalism of the church in the 1970s and 1980s dissuaded orthodox and traditional young men from entering the priesthood-thus creating the priest shortage that liberals now use to justify their calls for change. The pendulum may be swinging back: a 2004 Los Angeles Times survey noted a distinct conservatism in younger priests today.
The various proposed answers to the crisis have ignited some of the most heated discussions in the history of the church. How about admitting married men into the priesthood? “It would be more acceptable in the United States than in other places in the world,” Rassas says. “But I don’t see the church moving in that direction at all.”
Ordaining women is even more unlikely in the near future-Pope John Paul II declared in a 1994 apostolic letter that “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” Still, the movement has been especially vigorous in Chicago. In June 2000, a 14-foot-high billboard at 157th Street and Interstate 294 appeared near a spot where long lines for the tollbooths typically pile up. Making an unveiled reference to an ad campaign the archdiocese had been running to recruit priests, the billboard (sponsored by local affiliates of the national Women’s Ordination Conference) read, “You’re waiting for a sign from God? This is it. Ordain women.”
In some instances, the shortage of clergy has led local churches to give larger roles to women. St. Fidelis in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, a parish of 650 families, has been operating more or less without a priest for the past decade. Once home to eight priests, the parish fell on hard times, but instead of closing it, the late Cardinal Bernardin in 1995 appointed Leonette Kaluzny, a nun, to run it-the first female to head a parish in the archdiocese. Similar appointments are not likely to follow under Cardinal George.
“I think from the traditions of the church it’s been clear that, as far as we can tell, it’s been pretty much a male calling and vocation,” Rassas says. “Jesus called 12 disciples, and they’re all men, you know. Cardinal George is pretty strong on the fact that it’s part of our faith.”
Father Wall says he’s not afraid to speak his mind on the subject, and that he believes someday the church will be forced to seriously consider married men as potential priests. And women? Wouldn’t their presence in the priesthood go a long way toward solving a lot of problems? “Let me put it to you this way,” Wall says. “You and I will be long dead and buried before that happens.”
A Role for the People
On a summer night in Evanston, about 60 members of St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church gather in the cafeteria of the parish’s grade school for the first of three town hall meetings. As it happens, the school is named in honor of Pope John XXIII, the pontiff who convened Vatican II, which called for greater involvement of the laity-the broad term for those who are not part of the clergy.
The topic under discussion: What are the characteristics of a pastor who would be a good fit for us? Because the beloved Reverend Robert Oldershaw, the pastor there for the past 14 years, will be retiring in 2006, it’s not an idle question. The people of St. Nicholas, a parish with 4,500 members and a tradition of strong lay activism, want to talk about-and possibly influence-their future.
“We can say the kind of priest we want,” a man calls out, “but will anyone listen?”
“The trend has been that the archdiocese tries more and more to match up candidates with the appropriate parish,” responds Eileen Hogan Heineman, a parish council member and the moderator of the meeting. “So our job is to first define who we are and then talk about what kind of a pastor would best work for us.”
Of course, the Archdiocese of Chicago has its own procedure for matching up priests and parishes. But it is not surprising that St. Nicholas, a parish known for the innovative involvement of its members, would stay a little ahead of the archdiocesan curve. At the end of the meeting, when the characteristics wanted in the next pastor are called out, certain words and phrases reappear: “collaborative”; “inclusive, not authoritarian”; “welcoming of laity leadership.” One comment in particular wins a round of smiles and nodding: “Not viewing us as something that needs to be fixed.”
Not all Catholic priests would meet those criteria. During the reign of Pope John Paul II, the traditional arrangement of power, flowing from the top down, was strengthened, much to the satisfaction of some Catholics. All indications so far are that Pope Benedict XVI will continue with this model. “Before Vatican II, the church was for the clergy and the world was for the laity,” says Susan A. Ross, a professor of theology at Loyola University. “Vatican II rethought that whole relationship, talking about the priesthood of the laity. That’s one thing that is being rethought again, under both the previous and the present popes.”
“Under the guise of increased laity involvement, some individuals are really lobbying for fundamental and permanent changes in the church,” says Karl Maurer, vice president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, a conservative advocacy group that seeks to defend traditional Catholic values. Maurer, a financial adviser who calls himself “an orthodox Catholic,” says he doesn’t understand why “if some people are so unhappy in the church, they stay and fight so aggressively to change things, particularly when it comes to Catholic hierarchy. The gutting of the church’s management structure, by giving more power to the laity, isn’t the answer. If anything, we need a stricter management structure.”
To some extent, however, the math seems to make the future clear: nationally, the number of priests has decreased by 11.7 percent since 1995, while the number of Catholics has increased by 12 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. By necessity, then, more responsibilities are shifting to lay leaders for all aspects of parish life.
The degree of their involvement depends in large part on how creatively individual pastors interpret canon law. At Holy Family Church, in Inverness, the Rev. Patrick Brennan has found some wiggle room. “My approach to laity involvement is shaped by Vatican II, where all the baptized are people of God,” he says. “As such, my training was not to do things for parishioners but to do things with them.”
A parish of 3,800 members, Holy Family stands as an archetype of intensive lay involvement: It is divided into 20 mini parishes, each with a lay overseer, and 160 neighborhood ministries. Financial affairs are overseen entirely by lay people, and the church employs a CEO, just like any other large business. Brennan describes his primary role as eliminating a top-heavy management style. “I’m the bearer of the vision, but this is a collaborative effort,” he says.
Aware of the increased need for lay assistance, the Archdiocese of Chicago is working to codify academic and religious standards. Following guidelines set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the archdiocese created the Lay Ecclesial Ministry’s program Together in God’s Service, which since 2000 has enrolled nearly 70 people in “Formation,” a rigorous course of spiritual study at Mundelein Seminary (other, more academic studies are conducted at Loyola University, Catholic Theological Union, St. Xavier University, and Dominican University). Consecrating the Eucharist, central to any Mass, is still reserved for priests. But these lay ministers-known as pastoral associates-can take some of the burden off overworked priests, leading worship, directing parish operations, and serving the flock in various ways.
Keiren O’Kelly, director of the Office for Lay Ecclesial Ministry for the archdiocese, acknowledges that the church has a ways to go in reconciling the needs and hopes of some of the laity. Her office was “once called ‘The Office for the Non-Ordained,’ so we have made progress,” she says with a laugh. Nevertheless, “the culture of this archdiocese-as in most archdioceses across the country-is that no one should go into any kind of pastoral ministry without preparation.”
O’Kelly, 54, grew up knowing she wanted to work in the church, but aside from becoming a nun, she saw few opportunities beyond arranging flowers and pressing linen with the altar guild. “When I told my mother I was going to study theology at Loyola, she said, ‘That’s fine, dear, because you also know how to type.'” O’Kelly’s experience may be reflected in the makeup of existing pastoral associates. In the Chicago area, 70 of 82 are women.
Today women are taking on more active roles, but exactly how active remains determined by individual parishes. At St. Gertrude’s, a parish of 1,200 families in the Edgewater neighborhood, half of the ten-member preaching team, who rotate giving homilies, are women. “I don’t think that’s as unusual as people might think,” says K. C. Conway, a team member. “It’s just that some parishes are more under the radar.”
Conway, a psychotherapist, says the biggest danger she sees in the church today is what she calls “the ‘arch mentality’ of the hierarchy. They think, ‘We’re small, we’re exclusive, and we’re orthodox. And we’d rather stay that way than open ourselves up to any other influence.’ I believe their real fear is if they let the people in the church talk, we may never shut up.”
Taking the Collection
Two diminutive nuns, Dominican sisters dressed all in white, make their way up the wide center aisle at St. Mary of the Angels in Bucktown. Fishing in their own way, they stretch over the edge of each pew, holding forth a long, thin pole with a mesh basket at the end. The scattered parishioners at this 11 o’clock Mass-a diverse mix of perhaps 200-slowly fill up the baskets with envelopes, checks, and (mostly) cash.
The archdiocese says that 90 cents of each dollar in that basket-and in the dishes and baskets being passed around each week, all over the area-will stay to support the various programs at the church where it is collected. The rest goes to the Pastoral Center, the headquarters of the archdiocese.
“It’s a straight 10-percent assessment,” says Tom Brennan, the finance director. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a small parish, a large parish, a city parish, a suburban parish.” The assessment had remained at 6.5 percent for decades until 1991, when archdiocese officials determined that they needed more revenue, due mainly to increasing demands from hard-pressed parishes.
The Archdiocese of Chicago has an annual operating budget of about $1 billion, a figure that combines the budgets of all parishes with other operations overseen by the Pastoral Center. Much of the revenue from this complex group of business units never passes through the center. Tithing from the parishes last year contributed about $22 million to the main office.
At $317 million, a category entitled “charitable activities” is the largest single expense, and it includes the self-funded Catholic Charities budget of $169 million. (Catholic hospitals and universities run independent of the archdiocese.) “School programs” last year cost the church more than $300 million, and general operations of parishes were recorded at $246 million-both financed largely by collections and tuition. Maintenance of cemeteries with their nearly 20,000 burials per year is a significant expense ($45 million), as are central administration costs, which include the 350 or so employees at the Pastoral Center, and which totaled $148 million in 2004. Last year, the archdiocese ran a deficit of just over $8 million (an improvement on 2003’s $88-million shortfall, largely the result of making provision for future pension liability).
Considering that each component of the church depends ultimately on the sanction of the head office in Rome, the overall operation is rather decentralized. “There are 372 CEOs-the priests-and each parish has its own system of internal controls,” says Scott Steffens, a lead partner on the archdiocese account for Deloitte & Touche, the accounting firm that has handled the archdiocese’s annual reports for more than 50 years. “How they collect Sunday cash, and how they run their business-to audit that would be logistically impossible. The archdiocese sets guidelines for them, but essentially they run their own parish.”
The finances of the archdiocese itself are subject to fluctuations in the general economy that sound surprisingly worldly. In 2004, the archdiocese’s investment portfolio totaled just over $1 billion, divided into 13 percent cash (including short-term investments and money market accounts), 60 percent common stocks, and 27 percent fixed income securities. The $128-million net return for last year was markedly better than in 2003, which saw gains of less than half that much.
Because many of the church’s assets cannot be liquidated (see Holy Land, page 89), decreased cash flow and stress on the portfolio are especially burdensome when the economy falters. What’s more, the number of churchgoers, as Steffens puts it, has “a direct correlation” with revenue. Already flat, attendance showed a sharp decline after the most recent abuse scandals. It has bounced back up, but the overall picture is hardly robust. For 2003, according to the archdiocese, attendance at Mass declined by 2.8 percent-an improvement over the previous two years-but individual donors increased their giving by 3.6 percent.
“It hasn’t been as bad as it might have been, because of what I call the 20/80 rule,” says Charles E. Zech, who runs the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University outside Philadelphia. “About 20 percent of the people give 80 percent of the revenue, and so the fairly steady revenues mean that the big donors are maintaining or increasing their contributions even if smaller donors decrease theirs or stop giving altogether.”
Perhaps the biggest problem, Zech says, is the revenue system. “Catholics rely on the collection plate at the Offertory, and the people tend to give what they feel they can afford that week,” he says. “There’s no long-range planning. And what if the people aren’t there that week?” Catholic collection methods, Zech says, are well behind those of Protestants in innovation, transparency, and planning-the Protestants, he says, “get folks to make a commitment to give.”
Worse still, according to Zech’s research, is that “Catholics are low givers to begin with,” with typical households giving about 1.3 percent of their income-half as much as Protestant households.
The economic ebb and flow often forces the archdiocese to make tough decisions, such as closing schools or parishes. In May, following months of examination, the archdiocese announced 40 layoffs at the Pastoral Center-a 6-percent personnel reduction, but part of a plan to eliminate $8 million from the operating deficit.
“We’re just like any business,” says Tom Brennan. “We have employees with benefits, with pension programs, with medical, with salary. We see heating costs going up. We see electrical costs going up.”
The archdiocese is not required to send its financial statements to Rome, although every five years the cardinal travels there to report on the health of his congregation. Each year, the Chicago archdiocese-like a parish under the biggest archdiocese of all-sends a contribution to the Vatican, $400,000 last year (“less than 20 cents per Catholic in Chicago,” Brennan points out). And unlike a business, Brennan continues, “you can’t measure the effectiveness of our operation in terms of whether we have a surplus or deficit. You don’t just introduce a new product or raise your price. Can’t really tell until Judgment Day whether it’s been successful or not.”
Going to School
The financial squeeze has its hardest grip on the system of Catholic schools. In 2004, the archdiocese spent $315 million on the schools it owned, which were mostly grade schools (34 of the 41 Catholic high schools in the Chicago archdiocese are owned and operated by religious orders). “That accounts for 30 percent of our total budget,” says Brennan. “Education is one of our key ministries. We see schools as one of the primary ways that we pass the faith on to the next generation.”
Yet every spring, a number of Catholic schools race to stave off a closing. It is not an easy task; throughout the archdiocese, school enrollment declines every year. Nearly 5,500 fewer students were enrolled in 2004 compared with 2003, a decrease of 4.7 percent. (Enrollments are declining at Catholic schools in the suburbs as well as the city.) Today, 107,000 Cook and Lake County students are enrolled in parochial schools, a third as many as 50 years ago. The same two counties enroll 950,824 public school students.
The archdiocese has set the minimum number of students in an elementary school at a loose figure of 200. This past spring, it announced the closing of 23 schools, and the merger or consolidation of four more. Five schools managed-through quick fundraising and devising of a plan to build both enrollment and some kind of endowment-to persuade the archdiocese to keep their doors open, and two schools scheduled to merge avoided doing so.
Changing demographics often play a role in a school’s decline, but rising tuition costs are the primary reason why enrollment is falling. Average parochial elementary school tuition is about $3,300 a year, which can be a particular problem for inner-city families. And even that figure falls short of the costs. “The tuition a parent pays almost never covers all of the cost of education,” says Brennan. “Usually, it only pays about 80 cents out of every dollar.”
Dr. Nicholas Wolsonovich, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, knows well the changes that account for the tough world he faces. “Fifty years ago, you had Catholic schools paid for entirely by the users, through their parish contributions,” he says. “Tuition was nominal. The parish absorbed the costs of the school, which were lower because 95 percent of the teachers were nuns. In Chicago today 95 percent of the teachers are lay people. That means more money for salaries and benefits.” In the mid-sixties, schools began charging a substantial tuition, which became a barrier for some families. “Now there are fewer Catholics going to church,” says Wolsonovich, “and those who do go only give one percent of their income to their parish.”
Last school year, the archdiocese had 235 elementary schools, with an enrollment of 78,000, and 41 secondary schools, with an enrollment of 29,000. About 15 percent of those students were not Catholic. Yet every school has religion classes, prayer in school, and some level of required participation in religious services. Elementary classes are small, with a student-teacher ratio of 18 to 1 (in the Chicago public elementaries, the student-teacher ratio is 23 to 1); the attendance rate is 97 percent. Ninety-nine percent of students who attend a Chicago Catholic high school graduate, and 94 percent of students go on to college.
“We have very significant statistics that indicate kids in Catholic schools perform better than public school kids,” says Wolsonovich. “For example, say a child in an early primary level enters at a performance level below his grade. By sixth grade, that child has risen to an expected grade level performance. By seventh grade, he is performing above expectations for his level. And the longer that kid stays in Catholic schools, the more he continues to improve.”
Of course, other factors influence outcomes for parochial versus public students. “In Catholic schools, you tend to get kids who come from families who value education, and who can provide a strong support system for learning,” Wolsonovich says. “That can make for a world of difference.”
Concerned parents can help in many ways. Last February, when Donna Swinford heard that her children’s school, St. John Berchmans, in Logan Square, was closing, she sprang into action. “I want my kids to go to a school in their neighborhood and to have the kind of childhood school experience I had,” she says.
Although St. John Berchmans had an enrollment of 240 students, safely above the cutoff figure of 200, it also had a debt of $242,000. But Swinford and other parents came up with a plan. “First, tuition prices need to be raised,” she says. “Then research shows that this neighborhood has one of the largest concentrations of children under three in the city. So we have a built-in number of students, but we need to create marketing to reach out to them.” And a large amount of money needed to be raised quickly. “If we had had more time, we could have gone the corporate sponsor route and applied for grants,” says Swinford. “But we really just had time to start asking people-regular people and small businesses-for money.” In five weeks, the parents raised $170,000; no single donation was over $5,000. It was enough to make the archdiocese reverse its decision to close the school-for now. “We have two years to pay off $80,000,” she says. “Then we have to build up a trust fund for the future. But we have a glimmer of hope for the future now.”
Not all Chicago Catholic schools can say the same. In June, 18 of them closed their doors for good.
Doing the Lord’s Work
Alzenia Melton could retire, if she wanted to. Now 65, Melton has been a social worker for Catholic Charities of Chicago, the social services wing of the archdiocese, for 32 years, spending the past 30 as a supervisor in the agency’s emergency services center, at 721 North LaSalle Street. The facility, which in June helped 1,600 families (6,700 individuals), provides financial assistance, clothing, food, and other services to those with pressing needs.
On Tuesday nights, Melton and her colleagues serve 185 dinners-135 in the dining room, at tables with flowers and linens, and 50 in to-go boxes for those who line up outside. There are always more people than they can accommodate. “I grew up as a Protestant,” Melton says, “but in my faith, too, I believe that we are children of God, and in trying to help people when there is a need. And there is a great need here.” Retirement won’t happen anytime soon.
Father Mike Boland, head of Catholic Charities for the past eight years, points to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples as the origin of the church’s social service mission. “That’s the great mandate of the Lord,” says Boland. “To go and do likewise. They weren’t just going to take care of each other.”
Catholic Charities began in Chicago in 1917, the brainchild of a group of Catholic businessmen who saw a need to centralize the response to the many appeals the poor were making to their parishes. Marshall Field III, though not a Catholic, served on the first board. The national office is in Northern Virginia, but the Chicago branch, headquartered in River North, is its largest operation worldwide, and the largest nonprofit social services agency in the Midwest. According to its own numbers, Catholic Charities served 4.8 million meals last year, and helped 870,000 individuals.
More than 80 percent of Catholic Charities’ 2004 operating budget of $163 million came from government contracts. The organization provides housing for low-income seniors, and offers services normally considered traditional social work, including sheltering victims of domestic violence and counseling refugees. The Catholic Charities facility in Cicero is the major port of entry for Latin American immigrants there. The nonprofit is the largest deliverer of Meals on Wheels in Lake County.
Among the organization’s most visible recent triumphs has been the groundbreaking for the St. Leo Residence for Veterans. The first of five pilot projects nationwide, the facility (on the site of the former St. Leo the Great parish, shuttered in 2002, at the northern edge of the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood) will eventually house 141 chronically homeless military vets and provide Veterans Administration outpatient services to the larger veteran community. “There are 300,000 homeless veterans in the United States on any given night,” Boland says. “And 18,000 in metropolitan Chicago.”
For all the hungry mouths it has fed, Catholic Charities has also had its public struggles-most particularly at the Des Plaines campus of Maryville Academy, once the archdiocese’s chief foster care facility. After a teen committed suicide in 2002 and reports surfaced of sexual assaults, the state stopped sending wards to the facility. Maryville’s longtime executive director, the Rev. John Smyth, resigned in 2003, and many observers agree that even under new leadership the facility has a tough road ahead. “It is in a moment of redefining itself,” Boland says. “It is going to move forward and once again be a great voice.”
That kind of confidence arises out of Boland’s faith. “In almost any society there have always been those people who fall through the cracks,” he says. “We believe we are entrusted to take care of them.”
The Political Card
The late Mayor Richard J. Daley’s earliest memory, as related in Mike Royko’s Boss, was “of being taken into the Church of the Nativity, where his mother was an energetic volunteer.” He would return to that Bridgeport parish many times in his life, often attending Mass there on Sundays. Every workday, on his way to City Hall, he would stop for Mass at St. Peter’s, near the corner of Madison and Clark.
To think a Chicago politician would have to be Catholic to be elected, however, would presume a political unity in the city’s flock that has never really existed, says Paul Green, a professor at Roosevelt University and a veteran political observer. Catholics faced so much discrimination in the early part of the past century that the church was a place of refuge rather than of political muster, as in the black community. Indeed, the senior Daley “personified the victory of the Irish Catholics of Chicago” after decades of struggle and discrimination. Like all political relationships, the power could flow in both directions.
“Cardinal Cody could talk to the old Mayor Daley and say, ‘I really need this in Springfield,’ and there were times when the mayor could just say, ‘Fine, it’ll happen,'” Jimmy Lago, the chancellor, says. “Well, that doesn’t happen anymore. The cardinal talks to the mayor, but the mayor sometimes agrees, sometimes disagrees, and he can’t snap his fingers and make it happen the way the old mayor sometimes could.”
Cardinal George and the mayor meet with some regularity, sometimes over breakfast. Often, they discuss racial flash points in the city, and how the institutions might work together to keep the peace in a particular neighborhood. Mostly, though, Lago says, the meetings are about keeping a dialogue going. “The cardinal is part of the council of religious leaders of metropolitan Chicago, and so frequently he’s a public advocate for things,” Lago notes. “Sometimes that gets you sideways with the powers that be, so good communications between the mayor and the cardinal are essential.”
Issues from the wider political arena can surface here, too-sometimes at unexpected moments. In June, during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops here, a group called the American Life League took out a full-page ad in the Chicago Sun-Times, featuring a picture of U.S. senator Dick Durbin and telling him, “You can’t be Catholic and Pro-Abortion,” and calling on Cardinal George to “have the courage to enforce Church law.”
Lago started his career with the Catholic Church as a lobbyist in Springfield (Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, holds the job now), so he knows how the interplay of global, national, and local Catholic issues can move across the political spectrum. “When you start talking about advocacy, it’s not like your institutional self-interest is always at stake,” he says. “We’re anti–death penalty, we support affordable housing, we talk about cloning and stem cells. So you turn some people off over here and some over there. We’re liberal sometimes; we’re conservative other times. And it’s kind of a good feeling. I always felt that when I was in Springfield, we weren’t easily pigeonholed.”
Looking to the Future
The World’s Largest Block Party at Old St. Patrick’s Church is sold out, its ticket sales capped at 20,000. The majority of the crowd here were probably in second grade or so when the first event took place 21 years ago-and they are having a blast. The beer and wine flow freely, and kiosks full of summer foods do brisk traffic. Raffle ticket sales-one prize is two roundtrip Aer Lingus tickets to the old country-have been strong.
Despite the rock bands and halter tops and T-shirts, Father Jack Wall says the party links back to the parish’s immigrant roots. “In the early 1900s, the pastor here was working hard to bring people in,” says Father Wall. “So in a sense an event like this is continuing the parish traditions. It reaches back into some of the more traditional Catholic Church experiences, like church dances. The church always has to regenerate itself.”
There’s no real evangelical overlay, but the party does not try to mask its intentions. More unions within the faith mean more Catholics, and the brochure for the event notes that more than 70 couples have married after meeting at the event. “It’s a definite draw,” says Dan Furey, 27, a Catholic from Toledo who has lived in Chicago for five years, and who attended with his brother. “It puts an interesting spin on it.”
Father Wall stands by the gates on both nights of the party, meeting the crowd. In the end, he says, the bash demonstrates how much the church and the city are intertwined. “I grew up with the idea that every neighborhood had a block party-and ours has just ratcheted up to become citywide,” he says. “We want to share our experience. We always get up on the stage at the end of the evening and say, ‘Hey, we’re here the other 364 days of the year, too.'”