I’ve been busy with work lately and much of my free time has been spent helping Julie and the Savestmarys.net coalition. St. Mary’s is one of about sixty South Jersey Catholic churches the bishop is trying to close down and replace with smily happy Megachurches. I’m still not going Catholic on you all, I just don’t like short-sighted religious bureaucrats with secret agendas, and I like places and people and churches with roots and history.
On Tuesday night Bishop Galante and his posse came to visit St Mary’s and were greeted by an overflow crowd. He came with charts and a game show host of a priest for MC who tried to start the meeting with a pasted-on smile and crowd-control speaking rules. The St Mary’s parishioners were having none of it. There were over five hundred people in the pews asking why the Bishop wanted to shut down a church with sound finances, an impassioned priest, an involved laity and the wherewithal to continue another hundreds years.
“Vibrant” has become the Bishop’s stock answer, his new favorite code word. Like a President backpedaling on the rationales of an unpopular war, his spokespeople have admitted under pressure of evidence and easy solutions that the closures aren’t due to a priest shortage, financial problems at the targeted churches, or the lack of lay participation and involvement. The only explanation the bishop can offer for closure is “vibrancy.” But every time he tries to define “vibrant” he ends up describing St. Mary’s and dozens of other local churches he wants to close.
There’s obviously more to the definition than he’d like to share. One parishioner asked whether he thought a small church was even capable of displaying the “vibrancy” he demands. He refused to answer, which suggests we’ve finally dug down to a real answer. His fix for South Jersey is Megachurches that cop strategies from the Evangelical movement and consolidate power more closely in the diocesan offices.
The bishop gave the church-saving movement its best metaphor when he disparaged the little churches he wants to shutter as “Wawa churches.” Readers from outside the Mid-Atlantic region might know that Wawa is a local convenience store chain but that’s like saying water is a common chemical compound. You can’t drive more than twenty minutes without passing three Wawas. South Jersians practically live there. The bishop might was well condemn motherhood, baseball and apple pie if he’s going to take on South Jersey’s Wawa.
One disgruntled “Catholic in name only” campaign supporter rose to reclaim the Wawa label, saying that all these little churches were indeed like Wawa: ubiquitous, open at all hours, with good food that brought people in. The bishop obviously prefers the Walmart model: big box, big parking lot, hidden Eucharists, gameshow-host priests and clowns for music directors (seriously: check out this post of Julie’s and scroll down to the Greatest American Hero dude). I’m not sure why someone who dislikes Catholic culture so much would want to become a priest and I’m really not sure why someone who dislikes South Jersey culture so much would agree to be its bishop. One blogger recently wrote “I have gone through enough mergers and consolidations to know one thing
is true: reductions in manpower and assets are made for tighter
control” which sounds like as good an explanation as any other I’ve heard. Power and money: same as it ever was.
I was following the kids around outside for much of what turned into a speak-out session but I got to see twenty seconds of my wife Julie’s testimony on the Fox affiliate’s 10 o’clock news. Julie had THAT LOOK when addressing the bishop. It’s a look I know too well, it’s a look that means “I’m right, I know it, and I’m not backing down.” If I’ve learned anything over the course of the last seven years of marriage it’s that I don’t stand a chance when Julie gives me THAT LOOK: it’s time to concede that yes she is right, because any other option will just prolong the pain and delay the inevitable. I saw hundreds of people giving the bishop that same look last night.
It’s nice to see South Jersey standing up to an outsider who hates its culture and wants to force change for the sake of his own power and profit. We get a lot of it down here. The power guys usually end up winning: the woods get chainsawed and the farmlands buried under vast expanses of generic box stores and cookie-cutter McMansions financed by Philly money and greased by the pro-development laws of North Jersey politicians. I could be wrong, but after this week I don’t think the bishop stands a chance. The question now is how long he’s going to prolong his . And how many churches will he succeed in taking down in the name of “vibrance?”