Many Catholic Parishes across the region and beyond have closed, yet St. Brigid Catholic Church is poised to celebrate its 150th How have you avoided reorganizations and the financial pressures that have seen so many churches close their doors?
The simple answer to that is demographics. Midland has what some describe as the “Dow Bubble”. This has certainly contributed to Midland’s booming economy, but as a pastor, I know it also contributes to the family size, rate of participation in religious practice, and the whole quality of life index. Saint Brigid has had to adapt to changing conditions but we have not had to merge or close down because we have had a fuller church, stable funding, and sufficient student counts to justify the investment.
A shortage of Catholic priests is often cited as a chief reason for the shuttering of so many longstanding parishes. How is the Catholic Church addressing this?
I was a pastor in the thumb at the time Bishop Cistone asked our Diocese to seriously consider the future and the best path forward. While it would be easy to blame the mergers and closures on the shortage of priests – my observation has been that if the churches were full we would find ways to serve them. In many ways it’s a causality question – do falling numbers of clergy contribute to lower participation in religious practice or do the lower rates of participation in religious practice lead to falling rates of clergy? I don’t have the answer – but the two are very related. To that end the Church is adapting, finding new ways to lead and govern without ordained clergy assigned to every parish, and finding new ways to help people hear the Gospel and the call to follow Jesus again.
Most everyone in our society has heard about Jesus, but so many do not know Him nor do they understand that Jesus and His Church are inseparable. We must always be about renewing and sharing the ways that Jesus’ life is continued in the Sacraments, the service, and the educating mission of the Church.
Has the number of St. Brigid parishioners declined?
Yes, we have experienced a decline in participation. Perhaps not as severe as other parishes but the decline in attendance means we must renew our efforts to proclaim the Gospel at all times and in all situations.
Joe Biden became only the second Catholic (John F. Kennedy was the first) to be elected president of the United States. As a practicing Catholic, aren’t his religious views in direct conflict with many of today’s Democrat party’s positions on, for instance, same-sex marriage, Planned Parenthood, Abortion, as well as LGBQ and Transgender Communities?
If President Biden were to seek my advice I would encourage him to be less private about his faith and the church’s teaching. We should not be ashamed of the deep respect for life that our Church calls us to. The proper role of our faith is to inform our actions and attitudes. There must be a place for the well-formed conscience in government. I’m not calling for a theocracy, I am asking every citizen to engage their faith outside of Worship, or else risk having faith that is only ceremonial and fails to transform the believer.
How did the church maintain its connections with parishioners during the pandemic, especially early on when services were forced to cease?
Bishop Gruss, like nearly every other Bishop in the United States, closed the churches of the Diocese of Saginaw and dispensed all the faithful of their obligation to attend Mass on March 17, 2020. Congregations were welcomed back to church on May 25, 2020 (the exact reopening date varied by parish). During that 10-week time when the doors were closed, the church was open! Thanks to a gift from the estate of a deceased parishioner we had updated our sound equipment and included an easy-to-use camera that can stream our services to YouTube. We added this feature to be able to welcome homebound and shut-ins to join us virtually. Well for 10 weeks the whole parish was shut in! We immediately shifted our communication to email – we had been working to update our records and the pandemic forced us to start using electronic methods to communicate and share what was happening. While I had hoped for some sabbath time during the shutdown, I found myself spending more time in the office – communicating, publishing, and zooming. We hosted virtual scripture reflections, I broadcast Mass at our usual time, and shifted to virtual meetings. We took the Gospel to the virtual highway! Of course, Jesus is incarnate and we worked very hard to return to in-person worship as soon as the Bishop gave us the go-ahead.
Has Catholicism under the leadership of Pope Francis become a bit more progressive in an effort to shift its attitudes and mores during changing times?
No. Pope Francis has not made any changes to Catholic Theology or our teachings. He brings a very vibrant and outgoing personality. He is engaging and unafraid to answer questions. It is great that he receives positive press and often enables us to have the full conversation or share the whole teaching that did not fit in the short clip or was not fully captured in the headline.
What is the church’s official position on same-sex marriage?
The Catholic Church recognizes marriage as being between one man and one woman. The debate comes about how we can offer a path of joyful discipleship and chaste holiness for those who do not participate in that Sacrament. The Church loves all God’s children and wants to help each of us find a joyful path of discipleship. For some that can be a lot to digest when modern theory clashes with 2000-year-old wisdom. Humility reminds us my opinion may not always be right, as feelings and facts can easily get intertwined. Scripture calls us to love everyone (even our enemies). There is a place in the Church for everyone who is willing to be transformed by God’s grace, but we must be willing to follow Jesus and leave all else behind.
The Catholic Church has been rocked by sexual abuse scandals involving clergy. What has been done to attempt to ensure young boys are protected in what should be a safe and sacred environment?
Like all institutions that refused to acknowledge the depth of the hurt, we have seen scandal erupt internationally, nationally, and even locally. The abuse of minors and the misuse of power is evil. The Church has implemented strict zero-tolerance policies since 2001. I was ordained in 2007, and have lived my entire priesthood under the Dallas Charter. This document makes it clear that ministers of Christ should be healing agents and not inflict harm on anyone. More importantly, the Church in the United States has become the number one educator and promoter of abuse awareness. We want our churches, schools, sports teams, family gatherings, and anywhere youth gather to be a safe environment. Here at Saint Brigid over 100 staff and volunteers have been educated about how to spot abuse, how to report suspected child or vulnerable adult abuse, and to confront the evil of sexual abuse so that we can not only rid our church of it, but our whole society.
Does the Catholic Church have a role in helping unite people in a divided country?
I had a professor in seminary who liked to reference the Catholic – “both/and”. Most people in our society today speak of “Either/or”. The Catholic Church can help us all appreciate the viewpoints of others and grow together. Additionally, a hallmark of Catholic theology is Jesus and we – meaning I – can only draw closer to the Lord in community.
As we consider the community we must also ask ourselves if others are fundamentally good or fundamentally bad. The Catholic answer is that we were created in the image and likeness of God – and that is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). While we don’t always act on the good it would be wrong to attribute every action or position of the other as fundamentally bad. Nor does the world need to be saved, Jesus has already done that!
Does the church have plans to resume offering the Blood of Christ from a chalice to parishioners during Holy Communion?
We have made many modifications to our worship during the pandemic. The congregation wears masks, we regularly disinfectant church and our hands, we added air purifying technology and we encourage smaller crowds to allow social distancing. I am sure that some adaptations will be longer lasting than others. At this time, we don’t know when we will resume distribution of the Eucharist under both species (bread and wine). Those who receive the Eucharist do receive The Body and Blood of Jesus even if only one species (bread) is offered.
Anything else you might like to add about St. Brigid’s being a pillar in the Midland community for 150 years?
150 years is well beyond the life span of any single person. Our church has stood strong not because of any single person (although we have many great members both past and present). We have been a strong presence in the community because we have always relied on one another to complete the work of Christ. The best part of being the pastor of such a strongly rooted community is knowing that there is a lot of support to draw upon. While 150 is old by our memory, it’s a very small part of the life of the Church. We have much more to give and will not stop until all are fully alive in Christ!