Mary Flannery, at her First Holy Communion.
By Mary Flannery
Six of the 10 Catholic parishes in Pittsfield, Mass., will be closing their doors to the world as of July 1, 2008. Pittsfield is a city of approximately 45,000 residents and my adoptive home as of July 13, 2007.
I wept when I heard about the closings, so I can only imagine the grief of the folks who grew up here and call those parishes home.
Yet, with all of the conversation about the closings, I've yet to hear what we all most need to hear — atonement.
It's Lent and yet no one seems to want to cop to his or her sins of neglect. I grew up in another county in Massachusetts and want to publicly repent for my sins of neglect. Even if I hadn't grown up in this area, I'd still need to repent. Churches are closing across this state because we have neglected them.
I spent the first 25 years of my life in western Massachusetts. I went to Holy Cross elementary school and Cathedral High School. I received an excellent secular education from the Church. They prepared me very well to be successful in the world. But it seems I fall into that generation of Catholics who were not educated quite so well in Catholicism itself.
I eventually went off to Maryland thinking very little about my spiritual future, or the future of my Church. I spent at least the next five years behaving more like a pagan than a Catholic. It wasn't until I had children that I started to really take my Catholic heritage seriously. I was confronted with what I was going to teach my children about God. I was also confronted with my own hypocrisy. I wanted my children to know the truth. I wanted them to know God and love Him. Yet I was living a life that largely ignored God and the truth that I was made to worship Him.
Thus began my journey home. For the next nine years or so, as my faith grew and my heart was set on fire by the Holy Spirit, I mourned for my poor family members back in Massachusetts, faithfully serving the Church in an increasingly more hostile environment, very different from my own. I told them they should move down near me, where the Church was still alive, still growing. I felt lucky that I didn't live in Massachusetts any more.
Now, thanks to God's great sense of humor and Providence, I'm back in Massachusetts. I neglected my own Catholic inheritance and I'm back to atone.
When our pastor in Pitsfield announced the Church closings, I was reminded of the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants from Matthew 25: 14-30.
For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, "Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more." His master said to him, "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master." And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, "Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more." His master said to him, "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master." He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, "Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours." But his master answered him, "You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth."
Like so many Catholics I know, I have been given so much by God and have done so little with it. Thanks also to God's unlimited mercy, I can atone to great benefit.
I returned to Massachusetts to work for the Marians of the Immaculate Conception on Eden Hill in Stockbridge, home of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy. My years in Maryland prepared me for this work. I thank God for cushioning my return in such a generous and undeserved way!
Since coming home I've noticed some distressing things about the Church in Massachusetts. There is a strong sense of apathy, maybe even malaise, among Catholics here. I'm not saying that there's a direct correlation between sin and this illness, but I'm not saying there isn't either.
If we are truly one body, the Body of Christ, His Body here on earth, then we are all culpable for squandering the tremendous legacy given to us by our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. They suffered and sacrificed to make Massachusetts a strong Catholic state, and just look at us now.
Massachusetts is where the pilgrims first landed in America. A lot of our collective history began here. Massachusetts has been a leader in the history of this country, but it can also lay claim to some tragic firsts — the legalization of same-sex marriage to name just one. Will history prove that we've led the Church's decline as well?
The news of the Church closings has made for a very fruitful Lent for me. I'm using this time "in the desert" to repent for all of the times and ways I have contributed to the damage done to my Church.
Perhaps all of us can use this time of Lent — a time for atonement — to examine our consciences for our own guilt, our own neglect. Have we taken better care of our worldly homes than our spiritual home? Have we broken the first commandment and served another God? Have we told our children that there is nothing more important in the whole wide world than God and our relationship with Him? Do our kids think the Patriots and the Red Sox — or whoever your home team is — are more important to us than God? Have we cared more about the health and maintenance of our physical bodies than the health of our souls? Have we stored up treasure here on earth and ignored our treasure in Heaven? Do we even know what sin is any more? Are we teaching our children what sin is? Do they know the damage sin can do to them and that they don't need to suffer from sin? Are we making sure they get to Confession, so they don't have to carry the burden of sin? Or have we abandoned them to fend for themselves?
And if you assess your faithfulness and find that you have not done any of these things, we could sure use your personal penance as reparation for our collective sin.
Here in my new parish, I don't think I've ever heard our pastor mention sin. Maybe priests are afraid of talking about sin because if they do people won't come to Mass. I don't think that the attrition of the past many years bolsters that argument. At my previous parish, we got a new pastor about two years before I left. He's a really good holy man, and one of the very first things he did upon his arrival was to expand Confession times to every day and twice on Saturdays. Guess what. More people started to come to Confession! Saint John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, Md., is a vibrant, growing, faith-filled parish, and the pastor talks about sin and reconciliation all of the time!
Lord Jesus, in Your infinite mercy, forgive us for the damage we have done to Your Sacred Body. Show me the state of my soul so that I can be reconciled to You. I beg You to pour out Your mercy on us. Give us the grace we need to come back home to You.
Mary Flannery is a graphic designer and associate editor in the Editorial Department of the Marian Helpers Center. She lives in Pittsfield, Mass., with her son David.