Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Boston Church Closings : Rearranging the Landscape of Faith.

In a story familiar across the old-line strongholds of the Roman Church in the United States, the Archdiocese of Boston is moving ahead to sell the land of a closed parish to the township. Meanwhile, the parishioners continue their seven year vigil and take the case to the Vatican's highest court for such matters. You can read the full story from the Boston Herald here: http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view.bg?articleid=1061121920&srvc=rss

As mentioned, the story is familiar across the original bastions of Roman Catholicism in the United States. The original announcement of wide-spread closing throughout the archdiocese (styled as parish re-configuration) has had an acute sting in the Archdiocese of Boston. Coming as it did in the immediate wake of the child molestation crisis in the Catholic Church, the closings were seen as yet further evidence that the hierarchy has greater concern for the institution than the people who comprise the institution. The parishioners who "occupied" these churches on the chopping block were spurred on by the sense of protecting the structures that many of their ancestors may have helped build (constructed on the back of immigrant labor) and the local community that had hosted their ecclesiastical life. It is the local experience of the ecclesia that

For the person whose experience of the divine is connected to the life of a local parish, the decision to close the parish is of no small consequence. For the average Roman Catholic, these buildings are the ground upon which the walked while crossing the fields of liminality; in their sacramental rituals, the buildings have been the locus of passage and transformation, the engagement of a process of becoming, un-becoming and becoming again, a cycle that repeats itself in the experience of one's own offspring undergoing the same liminal process. It is not just a building that is closing, the parishioner whose primary experience of the sacred has been in the context of ritual liminality loses a holy ground, a point of encounter with the divine and the resulting transformation. There is, then, no longer a physical reference point to their experience of having crossed the fields of liminality and the parishioner must then undergo a new, and unexpected, liminal process- that of finding a new ground in which to locate the divine. This, as mentioned, predicated upon the individual finding his or her contact with the divine in parish life. For others, the divine is not so ritualized.

Closing a parish effectively wipes a persons' sacred landscape clean. One can never return to that place of reference. Even if the visit is infrequent, if one has invested some significance in the ritual process, one finds a point of spiritual orientation in the concrete structure. If one has a family attached to a church, one finds an emotional treasury in which is stored memories of one's most intimate relationships - for better or worse.

Yet, the sacred landscape is indeed changing, so far as Roman Catholicism and other forms of more sacramental Christianity are concerned. The Northeast in particular is no longer the bulwark of the Roman Church it once was and, unlike other areas of the country, immigration is not significantly changing the numbers. As such, Catholicism is gradually constricting in this area of the country. This constriction requires the constriction of the Roman landscape, typically in the form of church and school closings. Meanwhile, many immigrants in the Northeast look towards ethnically flavored Pentecostal churches as opposed to the Roman Catholicism which they've likely been a part of since birth. Catholicism's powerhouse continues to shift to the Southern United States, where immigration and conversions are boosting the numbers, the finances, and in turn expanding the spaces wherein the divine is encounter through sacramental observance. The sacred landscape is changing. The Northeast continues to lose its old holy grounds; as old line New England Protestantism gave way to Roman Catholicism, there is a similar decline in the sacred space of the once dominant religion. In other areas, however, the sacred landscape is expanding, engulfing more of the locality as the Roman Church redefines itself in the United States.