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OpinionCommentaryPope Francis Visit

Filling parish churches is a challenge even for Pope Francis

School children photograph Pope Francis after his arrival

School children photograph Pope Francis after his arrival at Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem on Sept. 25, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / John Moore

Too few people in the pews to support the cost of the church: It's not a problem limited to the Archdiocese of New York, where Pope Francis is visiting. It's happening in a lot of the East and Midwest. That, of course, is no consolation to the people of Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem. Their church closed years ago, though its school struggles gamely onward.

Before Pope Francis visited the school on Friday, there was a sign on the church door that read: "Welcome to East Harlem Pope Francis. The parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels continue on the sidewalk. PLEASE OPEN OUR CHURCH." That's what people have been praying publicly for, on Sundays. But the likelihood is that even this amazing pope can't work that miracle.

Still, it was uplifting seeing him in a Catholic elementary school, which has been so much a part of my life, as a student -- and my wife's, as a student and as gifted teacher for decades.

There's still something special about Catholic schools, something beyond the reading and writing and arithmetic.

My memories of Good Shepherd in Brooklyn are happy ones. I bristle when I hear stories of overly strict nuns. You try running a classroom of 72 kids -- 72 kids! -- as a young nun just out of high school, with no formal education training. That's what we asked of nuns in those days. If a few of them got a little crabby, can you blame them? As for me, I'm still in touch with my first-grade teacher, Sister Marnette Bamberger, of the Amityville Dominicans, who is as sharp as she ever was, even though her adventurous relationship with the law of gravity has caused a few unfortunate falls that limit her mobility. I still look at her for wisdom about the church.

It would be great if the pope's visit helps keep the East Harlem school going, so that it doesn't go the way of the parish church that closed -- like too many others. The closing of parishes is a complicated matter. It has to do with demography, with history, with aging, with declining numbers of new vocations to the priesthood.

One piece of history is one that my friend and former Newsday colleague, Paul Moses, has pointed out, after his intense study of the Irish and Italians in New York, for his new book: "An Unlikely Union." As the ethnic mix of  the City of New York grew -- and as some groups, such as the Irish and the Italians, didn't always get along -- the church created parishes to serve ethnic groups in their neighborhoods. In later years, that left the archdiocese with churches too close together, serving diminishing numbers of churchgoing parishioners.

Our Lady Queen of Angels is a case in point. It served a variety of ethnicities that have changed over the years: German, Italian, Dominican. You name it. That's the way it has always been in the city: ethnic identity is an ever-shifting dimension of life in this glorious city of neighborhoods.

On a national level, there has been a shift westward. "The number of U.S. parishes peaked in 1988 at 19,705," Peter Feuerherd wrote in the National Catholic Reporter. "They have since declined in number by more than 12 percent. The closures largely affected the Northeast and Midwest while the gains in Catholics in other regions has yet to be fully reflected in new parishes."

In the Archdiocese of New York, there's been a planning process called "Making All Things New." That bright, chirpy appellation must sound a tad off-key to the ears of parishioners in the 30-plus participating churches that have closed.

I'm actually more familiar with this phenomenon in the Archdiocese of Boston, where a thoughtful process came up with a pastoral plan called "Disciples in Mission," to strengthen parishes. That led to the formation of "collaboratives." This is how "Disciples in Mission" describes it: "In order better to focus our resources on evangelization, Disciples in Mission organizes the 288 Parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston into approximately 135 collaboratives." My daughter Rachel works as associate minister for one of those collaboratives, New Roads Catholic Community, made up of St. Joseph's and St. Luke's, in Belmont.

Like so many others in today's church, my daughter is intensely focused on making disciples, reaching out to Catholics who for whatever reason have drifted away from the church, and bringing them back into the fold. Pope Benedict XVI seemed content with the notion of a smaller church, so long as the diminishing numbers meant that those who stayed were stout in their beliefs and highly orthodox. Compared to that smaller-is-better idea, the current emphasis on evangelization is heartening. But it will take time.

Meanwhile, collaboratives, closed churches, and overworked priests will be a reality. The upside of that, of course, will be more lay people involved in the day-to-day leadership of parishes. So it's useful that the pope got to see some of it in person, before heading for a ride through Central Park and Mass in Madison Square Garden, where -- unlike too many parish churches -- there was no problem filling all the seats.

Bob Keeler is a former member of Newsday's editorial board.