26 April 2008

I have seen the enemy, and he is us.

Recently we've had a few notes dropped to us by reader Mary, who tells us a little about our parish's history. You can read her notes here and in the combox here. I am fascinated by her story, not only because it is about my church but because it portrays an ordinary parish from her time, and it shows her parish to the centre of a lively and vibrant community. This is almost completely foreign to my experience. So the question is, what happened?

The usual traditionalist answer is: "Vatican II", or the deformations that occurred in the name of the Spirit of Vatican II, the loss of Latin. Sometimes they name a few names, such as Bugnini, and Marini the first. To which I say, okay, granted, certainly the changes stemming from the council had some effect, but it did not effect everything. What about the rest? What did Vatican II have to do with a parish baseball team?

I remember years ago during my first degree when I took some courses in Canadian history. One of those courses was taught by a prof who didn't merely lean to the left- he was a flat out communist, and proud of it. He once gave a lecture on another institution that began a decline around the same time that church attendance began to drop, and today exists at a fraction of its former self. That institution was the union. What made his discussion interesting is the fact that he didn't mention the answers that come easily to communists. He didn't blame capitalists and big business. In fact, he summed up the chief factor for the decline of unions in a single word: cars.

Years ago, the various regions of the bigger cities of North America were like small towns. Because mobility was limited, people tended to stay within their little area. They lived near the place they worked. They also had a church nearby most likely, as well as a few pubs and libraries, and so on. Everybody knew everybody else, because you worked together, worshipped together, had fun together, even mourned together. The car helped change all that. People now lived miles from where they worked. Holding meetings after work was difficult, because many of the workers now faced a long drive home and wished to be gone as soon as possible. Interactions with neighbours became fewer, because they no longer lived worked and worshipped together. When TV gets added to the mix, the few hours when people are home are often spent staring at a piece of furniture which shows them stories about people who go out, and sometimes even have friends. It is common now for neighbours to live beside each other for years and never exchange a single word.

So communities began to break down. The church began to lose out to this new isolation of its members.

Furthermore, many of the activities Mary lists, such as the sports teams, were replaced by municipal leagues run by the city. The church as a community centre was displaced as the various municipalities began building their own community centres. People now had one less reason to go to their church, one less tie to their church. Before long, Mass was the only reason people went to their church.

So what should we do? I don't know, really. Trying to rebuild a community for people who don't care about community would be pointless. I wouldn't even know where to begin. I only want to say that while we can blame Spirit of Vatican II types for the decline in church attendance and all that, there is another set of reasons for these problems, and those reasons begin and end with us.

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