In early March I wrote in a couple of bulletins about the archdiocesan-wide spiritual renewal, called Renew My Church (RMC). Since March, I have attended a couple of meetings with other Archdiocese churches in the Downtown Grouping (Assumption Church, Holy Name Cathedral, Old St. Mary's Church, Old St. Patrick's Church, St. James Church and St. Peter's in the Loop Church). In our meetings, we looked at what are our strengths, challenges and opportunities to be a missionary presence here in the central downtown area of Chicago. Unlike some of the other groupings throughout the Archdiocese, our challenge was not to look at structural changes but rather how we all might cooperate with our unique parishes and challenges of being located in the downtown area.
This renewal (RMC) began a number of years ago as the leadership of the Archdiocese, in reflecting upon the presence of the Church, sought ways on how best to bring the Gospel message of Jesus Christ to others in our times. Numerous studies and the reality of our changing world challenge the Church today to find how best to invite people to encounter Jesus Christ and to become his disciples. The challenge of diminishing church attendance invites us to look at how we can best live our Catholic faith in the world today. A study completed before the COVID pandemic found that only 23% of Catholics in the USA attend Mass on a regular basis. If the Eucharist is the "center of our faith" then we are faced with growing struggles in nurturing the faith of all Catholics.
A concerning statistic is that of 24 to 39 year old young people. In that group, 36% claim to have no formal religious affiliation. Among those who do identify as Catholic, only 17% attend Mass weekly. Even beyond these statistics is my own observations and the observations of many other priests I know, throughout the country, that many of our regular Sunday Masses have few young adults in the congregation. I have heard many a parent or relative express their deep concern that their son or daughter no longer attends church and, for many folks, their children have even left the Catholic Church for various reasons.
The dangerous trap we could fall into is to think the Church is dying or not meeting the needs of people in our world today. When I have listened to people tell me of their concern and, in fact for some, their fear that the Church is dying, I remind them to study the history of the Church. I remind them that before Christ returned to his Heavenly Father at the Ascension, he left his disciples and us a message and a promise. Jesus said to them [disciples] , "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of time." (Matthew 28:18-20)
Since Christ walked the soil of Galilee, the Church has continually needed to share the message of Christ in ways that makes sense for the hearers. Whether it has been changes in language, adapting the Gospel to cultures much different than first century Palestine, adapting church structures and ministers or many other ways our Church has preserved the message of Jesus and tried to share it in a way for all people to understand.
In a couple of paragraphs from the Archdiocese RENEW MY CHURCH booklet we read, "Rather than retreat from the world, this is a time for the Church to increase its mission in the world. We have now entered what is being identified as a 'New Missionary Age' where, despite numerous challenges, the horizons of a humanity more fully prepared for the sowing of the Gospel' are opening before us". In response, the Church must approach her mission in traditionally Christian spaces with a "renewed missionary impulse, an expression of a new, generous openness to the gift of grace" that invites people to encounter Jesus Christ and to become his disciple. In this era of missionary outreach, as Pope Francis teaches us, we are called to be a "Church which goes forth....forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the 'peripheries' in need of the light of the Gospel."
As we undertake this work of renewal, we are reminded of the account of how St. Francis of Assisi received his calling to work for the renewal of the Church. As St. Francis was praying before the crucifix in the dilapidated Church of San Damiano, near Assisi, he heard Christ speak to him from the Cross, saying, "Go, repair my house." At first, St, Francis took the message literally. So he started rebuilding the physical building around him, brick-by-brick. However, soon he understood Christ was calling him not to reconstruct a material structure, but to renew the Church itself. This account, and the image of that crucifix, have been a guiding light for us in this time of renewal. Just as the crucified Christ gave St. Francis the mandate to renew the Church, we pray that Christ will inspire us to have the discernment necessary to know what we need to rebuild and what needs to be made anew in service of renewing his Church.
In my report to a recent meeting of the Downtown Archdiocese Church Grouping, I shared some of the challenges and vision that I see from my perspective as pastor of St. Peter's at this time. Some of the items I listed are also challenges facing all of us downtown churches. I include below a portion of my report.
CHALLENGES: The impact of the COVID pandemic has drastically touched the Loop and everyone who lives and works downtown. The Franciscan and lay staff of St. Peter's have begun discussions on exactly what should be the focus of our ministry today? We very much accept that "Renew My Church" is a part of our Franciscan heritage and a vital part of the future presence of the Church in the Loop for those who live, work or visit this part of Chicago.
St. Peter's has always struggled with adequate Financial Support but somehow with the grace of God and the generosity of our benefactors and visitors, we continue to be a viable presence of the Church here in the Loop. The support of our Franciscan Provincial administration has been very helpful in keep us viable. I look forward to discussing how we, and other Downtown churches, can share our Resources now and in the future.
While St. Peter's is very accessible to anyone downtown or using public transportation the expense of parking a car in the Loop is very high especially on weekdays. I believe we need to look at how we outreach to many people in the Loop, especially students, those living in the Loop, the homeless on the streets, and others. We also need to discuss with the Secular Franciscan Fraternities associated with St. Peter's how we might work together in ministry. A growing concern I have as pastor is the aging of the Franciscan Friars living and working at St. Peter's and the reality of having fewer men available for our present ministry or any increase in future ministry.
VISION: In the next months, St. Peter's will be developing our vision for the church and what the future holds. Our province of Franciscans (Sacred Heart Province) along with five other USA OFM Provinces will become one province in October 2023. This will bring unforeseen challenges but also will hopefully offer us new ways of how best to minister to the People of God and evangelize in Chicago and in Boston, New York, Phoenix and San Francisco where the Franciscans presently staff downtown churches with similar locations like St. Peter's.
All of us pastors of the Archdiocese Downtown Churches are committed to fostering and promoting the renewal of our faith in the areas in which we all serve. We plan to continue our discussions to renew our Church and to involve more and more of those in our congregations in this ongoing renewal of our faith.
We live in difficult and challenging times and the Church (everyone of us who believe in Jesus) are challenged to commit ourselves to bringing Christ's message of the Gospel to others. I'll be sharing more in the coming months about how we might Renew My Church here at St. Peter's.
NOTE: This is an advance notice that due to preparations for our special concert that will be held in church on June 3 & 4 there will NOT be Adoration and Benediction on Friday, June 3. Please be sure and mark your calendars of this change for June 3.
MINISTRY SCHEDULE FOR JUNE 13-17: The Franciscan Friars meet every three years in a gathering called a Provincial Chapter to discuss our Franciscan life, elect our leadership, pray together and renew our Franciscan calling. This year we will gather in St. Louis, Missouri from throughout our Province from June 13 to June 17. With the merging of six of the U.S. Provinces in October 2023 this may be the last time we friars of Sacred Heart Province come together as a separate province. Because many of us from St. Peter's Friary will be attending this gathering, there will be some significant adjustments in the church schedule June 13-17. I will share more information in coming bulletins and on our web site.