When I worked at Mundelein Seminary, I met many old-time Chicago priests who used to tell me interesting stories about the archdiocese and Chicago. I wish I would have recorded all these stories. Fr. Thomas Franzman, a down-to-earth Chicago priest, used to stop by my office very often and share illuminating stories, especially about the breakdown of parish community life in the archdiocese. Knowing that part of my job was introducing Chicago Catholics to the majestic Mundelein Seminary/University of Saint Mary of the Lake, he used to explain to me the reasons for the decline in community and how we went from a Catholic Chicago that held the Eucharistic Congress in 1926 (that broke records in attendance) to a Chicago with parishes closing or merging left and right. His story and explanation of the decline in parish community life is not complete, but I think it gets some things right that could also be said for the decline of community in America at large.
As a young priest in the early 1970s, Fr. Franzman was assigned to St. Michael the Archangel Parish in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, close to the University of Chicago. He told me that he had a very interesting parishioner, a University of Chicago sociologist professor, who would explain for him what the probable major reasons for community decline in the neighborhood: television, air conditioning, and the automobile.
Chicago is a big town with small neighborhoods. And at the heart of those neighborhoods was the parish. That is no longer the case. The infrastructure, in some respects, is still there, but it is quickly disappearing. In the 1970s and even up to now, many Catholic leaders assumed that the old model of community would last. That people would live most of their lives as part of the parish, despite the presence of television, air conditioning, and the automobile, was taken for granted. Even the suburban parishes assumed that this would be the case. However, today, many people are waking up to the fact that that model does not exist anymore and if parishioners do not intentionally do something about community and parish outreach, the Church in Chicago will be significantly smaller in the coming years.
Strategies and practical tips for how to turn the tide have been coming out the wazoo. But a more realistic approach might be simple and ordinary. I mean the ordinary virtue of being a good and hospitable neighbor. I have sometimes met so-called “expert evangelists” who are reportedly horrible neighbors. Do you think they are really evangelizing anyone? Perhaps these evangelists are offering good arguments, but are they really leading people to the God who is love? The early Christians convinced the pagan world of the truth and goodness of faith in Christ because of their love for each other. We should remind ourselves of that today.
In his book To Change The World, James Davison Hunter argues that most of the ways contemporary Christians pursue social change through “evangelism, civic renewal through populist social movements, and democratic political action (where every vote reflects values) . . . is simply wrong.” He thinks that lurking behind the desire to change culture is the desire for power, which ends up perpetuating the nihilism at the heart of the modern age. As an alternative, he proposes a theology of faithful presence and a model of engagement called “faithful presence from within.” He quotes the words of Jeremiah, delivered to the Israelites during the Babylonian exile, as his inspiration for such a model: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer. 29:4-7). In our post-Christian society, the Church is like Israel in Babylon, and we need to focus on cultivating the community we already have, instead of investing in initiatives of power that might in the long run alienate the few that we already have.
While I think that Davison is right that we need to cultivate faithful presence from within the city commons, I think he grants too much to liberalism as the defining horizon of political existence. Perhaps this is due to a non-Catholic ecclesiology that grants too much to the political as defining horizon.
Rather, the communion ecclesiology based on the Eucharist—in which Christ enters us and we enter him, bringing us through the Spirit into communion with the Father and following Christ’s mission to the world, ultimately bringing the world into communion with the Father—is the right model to follow. The Eucharist, which is a communion, is supposed to inform the community of the parish, which is supposed to be the model of communion for the wider community, which ultimately finds its home in the Church.
Intentionally inviting people into homes for dinner, taking the time to get to know your neighbor, initiating a conversation with a stranger, and many other neighborly acts are anticipations of the Eucharistic communion. At least doing your best to do these things, despite the difficulty in today’s world in which everyone avoids each other by isolating themselves to their cell phones, might be the most effective and realistic way of bringing people together again. In some ways, it is as simple as that.