On/File: A Continuing Record of People, Groups, Movements, and Events Impacting Contemporary Religion

1) Faced with declining membership, a number of Roman Catholic dioceses in the western hemisphere are considering reducing the number of parishes in order to coalesce around a smaller number of places of worship. But the Archdiocese of Baltimore (MD) is contemplating a rather radical move with its project to eliminate two-thirds of its parishes in the city itself. Established as a diocese in 1789 and elevated to an archdiocese in 1808, it is the oldest Roman Catholic diocese in the U.S., comprising the City of Baltimore and the counties of Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, Harford, Howard, and Washington. The Baltimore experience is reported to reflect the situation in many traditional Catholic strongholds across the U.S. East Coast and Midwest. The archdiocese’s website highlights general demographic shifts and declining attendance, particularly in the city of Baltimore, where the population has declined 38 percent since 1950, and where parishes occupy more than four times as much space per parishioner as the rest of the archdiocese. Buildings are in need of repair, funds are dwindling, and COVID-19 has greatly accelerated the decline in attendance, with “city-parish pews falling from 20 percent full in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, to 9 percent full in 2022,” according to La Croix International.

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori (source: https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2023/11/09/lori-baltimorearchdiocese-bankruptcy-sexual-abuse-246461).

After two years of study, by mid-April, as part of a plan called “Seek the City to Come” (Hebrews 13:12–15), the archdiocese recommended reducing the number of parishes in the city and some surrounding communities by two-thirds, from 61 to 21. After discussions with the faithful and adjustments, the final plan revealed on May 22 should result in 23 parishes with 30 worship and ministry sites, about half the current number of churches available for Sunday Mass. As might be expected, there have been mixed reactions from the local Catholic community. The archdiocese wants to present its move in a positive light, but many are skeptical of its claims that the measures will strengthen its presence. A strong argument in favor of the move is the imbalance between the city and the rest of the archdiocese, since statistics show that of about 500,000 Catholics in the archdiocese, only about 14,000 worship in Baltimore city, and only 5,000–8,000 are residents of the city, while the city is home to about a third of the archdiocese’s parishes. Archbishop William Lori said “that the mergers are not related to the archdiocese’s bankruptcy filing [in 2023] amid a slew of clergy sex abuse lawsuits.” After the parish mergers, the proceeds from each sale of buildings and properties will go to the surviving parishes. (Source: La Croix International, May 6; Associated Press, May 23; Crux, May 3)

2) Micro-services are not entirely new, but they are part of a renewed attempt to lure people back to churches in the UK, especially after losses of worshippers since the pandemic. These services typically last about 15 to 20 minutes and are designed to help busy people fit prayer into their daily lives. “We’re trying to offer something new, something different for people,” said Rev. John Gillibrand, vicar of St. David’s Church in Swansea, who launched the initiative. “I believe in theological reflection, and in the period after COVID and what happened then, I’ve been thinking about the potential problems people face. This is an area that has a lot of commuters and is an old industrial community. People are under pressure, and one-hour services can be a long time to take out of their lives. We have been looking at timing, and the additional problem people face going home and then having to come out again. We’re trying to make it easier for them.” The service, taking place on Mondays, is simple, with a Bible reading, reflection on the reading and then prayer, about five minutes each. There is no talk about church community affairs or needing to follow a liturgy. The basic idea of providing a short service is not new, with cathedrals frequently holding short meditations and prayers during the day. Other clergy from churches across the country have expressed interest in the initiative. (Source: Religion Unplugged, May 13)