By Raftery, Susan
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 32, No. 44
The current parish model, first organized around agrarian culture, no longer meets the needs of the faithful.
The model, primarily dependent on a resident pastor in stable communities, is no longer viable, given the decrease in priestly vocations and the changing nature of community. It is ironic that the church adapted this agricultural model to the urban setting, thus creating the model for our American church, urban and rural.
Yet, little attention has ever been given to rural parishes in the United States. The church often views rural as synonymous with farming and agriculture. As the number of farm families decreased, even rural church-related organizations such as the National Catholic Rural Life Conference have seen a drop in membership and participation. This does not mean we have lost rural parishes. Many are alive and vibrant in the late 20th century.
When rural parishes lost their resident pastors, there was no crisis, such as there appears to be today when urban and suburban parishes are affected. Perhaps the real need is not more priests but new models of parish. Residents of many rural parishes have found, through many spiritual journeys, that faith is more than a resident pastor. Many rural communities created new models of parish, often without intervention from the outside.
Due to immigration and settlement patterns of the 19th century, the U.S. church was predominantly an urban church. Certain urban areas were magnets to those newly arrived from other countries. Such neighborhood offered a transitional step between the old world and the new. The majority chose to stay in eastern cities.
Today, however, nearly two-thirds of U.S. parishes are outside urban America in rural and small town communities. They are often the forgotten parishes. Many have never known the luxury of a resident pastor.
Forgotten historical circumstances often played a part in the development of many parishes. Early in this century, the federal government severely restricted immigration from European Catholic countries. Church leadership pondered the dilemma such restrictions would have on the urban Catholic population. They were concerned lest the church should not continue to grow in the cities.
The solution, for a group of Midwestern church leaders, was the formation of 10,000 rural parishes. The excess of young Catholic laborers coming from the farms to the city for employment opportunities, they believed, would maintain the growth of urban Catholicism. Many bishops of the time went so far as to recruit entire villages from Europe to move to the rich agricultural areas of the upper Midwest. The bishops never mentioned where 10,000 resident pastors would be found for these parishes.
In earlier times of ample vocations to the priesthood, many young priests did come from rural America. They did not need to learn about rural parishes, but needed to learn about urban life. Today, the reverse is happening. Very few seminaries give their mostly urban seminarians any instruction in rural and small town America. Is it any wonder that the church often overlooks rural parishes as places of change and growth?
Many rural parishes have never fit the suburban model. Other rural parishes, having once had a resident pastor and perhaps even a school, now find themselves in differing circumstances. The vocation crisis -- not a parish crisis -- hit many rural parishes more than 25 years ago. Had they depended on the suburban model of church, many vibrant rural Catholic communities would not exist today.
Twenty-five years ago, when a Midwest rural parish saw the closing of its school and the loss of its resident pastor there was little discussion. Collegiality between the diocese and the parish did not exist. Parishioners could understand that there were no longer sisters to staff the two-room school; what they could not understand was why they lost their resident pastor. …