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Mary Flannery, at her First Holy Communion.

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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.

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Be a part of the discussion. Add a comment now!

maggie - Mar 8, 2008

Wow! This very topic has been subject of discussion with my circle of friends this past week. The Holy Spirit must have directed me to this article tonite. My parish in the Boston Archdiocese is about to embark on a program of "renewalinternational/arise" to work towards bringing parishoners back. (Very costly to parishes) I have serious misgivings about this program because it is community centered and not Christ centered. Just another feel good, lets all get along type of new age dissent as far as I'm concerned. Without teaching the sacraments and penance especially I think we are doomed to continue on the same path. My heart aches every time I go to Adoration and beg for Mercy for priests and families (mine especially). May I suggest reading "The Faithful Departed" by Phillip Lawlor and many insights will be gained as to what has happened in Massachusetts. The decline of our church in Massachusetts has very deep roots. We were all betrayed and unaware of the decline or maybe I should say I certainly was as an apathetic catholic.

We can all be part of the solution by standing up for our faith. Spreading the Divine Mercy, saying the rosary and being prayer warriors in this time of "spiritual wafare".

Thank you Mary...a great article!!

GK - Mar 6, 2008

Q: What's wrong with the Church?

A: I am.


Matka - Mar 5, 2008

This piece is very well thought out and written. It is very thought provoking and prayerful. Thank you for challenging AND encouraging me.
You raise an extremely important point about the Church closings and OUR responsibility - since WE are the Church, not only our beloved priests, bishops, etc.
You also wrote beautifully about "examining our consciences." May I use that paragraph in my CCD class? Moreover, may I ask it of my students' parents? - and fellow parishioners, as well?
May I be the first to fall on my knees in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit for wisdom and awareness of my responsibility to our Church's needs.
May God bless you.

Addison - Mar 5, 2008

Perhaps if each one of us prays each day for one person that we know to return home to the church, then we can all grow together. This is what I am doing. Churches are closing in the Allentown area and across the country.
A wise person once said: ' prayer is not the least we can do for someone, it is the most we can do. '

Judy L. - Mar 4, 2008

It's not only Massachusetts. I live in New Hampshire and I never hear the word sin either. Our churches are closing right and left also - my parish has been teamed up with another. I live 5 miles from the largest city - Manchester - not only do we have fewer churches - we have fewer Masses and fewer parishioners attending Mass on a regular basis. I pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day on my way to and from work. May God have mercy on us all.

Groovin' ... - Mar 4, 2008

Amen. Admitting we are all part of the problem and, therefore, solution is a refreshing take on the many Church closings. I bet not many Catholics are willing to consider this refreshing, soul searching approach unless they are on the "groove" back like you, Mary.

Sounds to me that Maryland's loss is Massachusetts' gain. Divine Providence indeed does have a sense of humor and obviously a plan by having you work at the Marian Helpers Center.

Thank you for your insight. Your article certainly made me look at my own culpability as a Catholic.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

The hope for rejuvenation of the authentic teachings of Catholic Church in Massachusetts remains in the words "Jesus, I Trust in You" and with people like you Mary spearheading the cause.

Is it Divine Providence that the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy is in Massachusetts? Most assuredly so.

Dave - Mar 4, 2008

Mary, well said! You have said what needs to be said. We Catholics in Massachusetts must look to ourselves if we are to understand the reason for the decline of our Church. We must repent for our lukewarm Faith. Lent is truly a time of repentance and renewal. Let us all turn to Our Lady to lead us to a true Baptism in The Holy Spirit.

donna .e. - Mar 4, 2008

Its a very sad state that we are leaving the good Lords church in...if only people knew the "truth" then these walls would be bursting at the seems! It does say in the bible that there will come a time of great confusion and I believe this is it, there is a lot of competition for peoples attention and peoples souls. Wicka, New Age, Secularism etc.etc.etc. the evil one put these in place long ago in order to achieve the very results we are seeing today. Only God can convert the soul of man.