14 March 2012

Agonizing Ecclesial Re-appraisals Between-the-Beltways

L. The Falls Church Anglican, Falls Church, VA,              R. St. Aloysius, Washington, DC

Two parishes in the Washington, DC Metro Area need to make agonizing reappraisals about their parishes.  Their struggles epitomize challenges of keeping the faith along with what church means during these turbulent times.

The Falls Church, a parish which dates back to 1732, is a church from the Anglican communion, is facing some severe consequences for standing fast for their believes.  The Falls Church faith community can be characterized as Evangelical Episcopalians, which welcome women priests but are scandalized by the consecration of an openly gay bishop and the blessing of same-sex unions.  So in 2006, the Falls Church voted to disassociate itself from the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA) by a 1221 to 127 margin to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), which has evolved into the Anglican Church in North America (which is no longer affiliated with the Anglican Communion).

Parting should be painless.  Last year, the ECUA blessed the conversion of the entire  Anglo-Catholic parish of St. Luke’s in Bladensburg, Maryland (including the ability to purchase its property) so that St. Luke's could  join the Catholic proto-Anglican Personal Ordinature in the United States, under the 2009 Apostolic Constitution AnglicanorumCoetibus.  Such a peaceful and orderly exit was not the fate for the Falls Church (Anglican) Truro and five other breakaway Churches in Northern Virginia.  There were justified hopes that the exiting CANA parishes could have reached economic accommodation with the ECUSA but Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori would have none of that peaceful parting of ways.  It is unclear as to whether this was due to the size and high profile of the Falls Church and other CANA parishes, if it was the value of the breakaway parishes or if the invasion of the more traditional Global South Anglican Communion seriously encroached American Episcopalian authority. Nevertheless, the ECUSA opted for lawfare.

After more than six years of litigation, the Virginia courts decided that the ECUSA has “a contractual and proprietary interest” to these break away Anglican church properties.  Falls Church Anglican must make arrangements to surrender their property to the ECUSA by April 30th, 2012.  But to add insult to injury, the court ruling required reimbursing the ECUSA and her minions for lost revenues from before the disassociation, when the breakaway churches raised funds in anticipation of their leap in faith to CANA and later to the Anglican Church in North America.

It is ironic that Falls Church Episcopal, with an average attendance of just 74 Sunday worshipers will displace the vibrant Falls Church Anglican parish with 2000 Sunday worshipers.  The “rump” Falls Church Episcopal pays only $9,000 a year in facilities costs to rent their current worship space in Falls Church Presbyterian.  Yet the Falls Church Episcopal parish operates at a deficit even with a special grant money from the Episcopal diocese.  After they reap their litigational reward, the Falls Church Episcopal will gain a physical plant which requires $750,000 per annum to maintain. There are no remaining Episcopal congregations to receive the Truro or nearby Church of the Apostles parishes. If the Episcopal √©minence grise is not operating out of spite, it would be wise to rent the worship spaces to the Anglican Church in North America parishes as much as possible.

Fr. Horace McKenna, S.J.

Over in the District of Columbia, the fate of St. Aloysius is less acrimonious but no less agonizing.  St. Aloysius Catholic Church was established in 1859 by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) to supplement Gonzaga College High School as well as catering to  to Irish Catholics living in the Swampoodle neighborhood in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.  But by the mid 1970s, the surrounding neighborhood became blighted and was mostly raised and replaced with office buildings.  The remaining parish was influenced by Father Horace McKenna S.J., a Jesuit known as the Apostle to the Poor, who sought to reach out to the poor as well as building racial harmony. The small but dedicated  parish worshiped in the lower church basement for a quarter century before moving to the renovated Upper Church.

Although St. Al’s is on solid financial ground, with a building in good physical shape and has means to maintain it, there are questions on the continuation of the St. Aloysius as a parish.  The Maryland Province is faced with dwindling numbers of Jesuits who are rapidly aging.  Since the Society of Jesus dedicates most of its emphasis to the vocation of education, the Maryland Province wants to downscale its commitment to Parish Life to three congregations throughout the Province.  The Nation’s Capital hosts two Jesuit Parishes, the other one is the large and well connected Holy Trinity (Georgetown) parish.  The Jesuits are not naming a successor to St. Aloysius, which it has staffed for 153 years.  So the St. Al’s community, along with the Maryland Jesuit Province and the Archdiocese of Washington, must discern what is the right path for the congregation.

There are several viable options for St. Al’s future.  There is little chance that the church building will be shuttered, as Gonzaga College H.S. already contributes heavily to the building’s beautiful renovation and maintenance. There are alternatives to merge it with another parish, relinquish the operational reins to another religious order, operate as a public chapel, become a non-Pariochial Worship Center or setting up as a Parish Life Coordinator model (in which Jesuits perform the Liturgy but it is run by a lay administrator).

This ecclesial discernment process must decide upon the importance of the Ignatian charism and how that flavor of religiosity forms their faith.  Some parishioners are concerned about how their childrens’ catechism would be impacted if St. Aloysius ceases being a parish per se.  But faith formation should be lifelong.  Catholics tend not to do bible study’s or vacation Bible Camp (although St. Al’s does during the summer). But the practice of our faith is influenced by the Mass  and other sacraments. Jesuits stress thoughtful homilies and an emphasis on Liturgy.

The Society of Jesus was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1534, after being wounded in battle and experiencing  a religious conversion in his long convalescence. The Jesuits became known as God’s Marines who molded themselves as contemplation in action for the greater glory of God. Ignatius came from a noble family but became dedicated to also serving the plight of the poor. Hence Jesuits have tended to establish themselves in city centers where they can minister to both societies high risers and the hoi polloi.  St. Aloysius is a prime example of that urban urge, as it is but blocks from the halls of Congress yet built in an Irish Catholic slum that now is now African-American underprivileged.

Under its Jesuit auspices, St. Aloysius runs the McKenna Center for the poor as well as Peacemeal ministry onsite.  That preferential option for the poor may not be as well emphasized in non-Jesuit parishes, or even with its sister parish Holy Trinity. Merging with another parish may make the current faith formation as well as the role of Ignatian spirituality.

By their very nature, agonizing reappraisals are never easy, particularly for parishes that are being forced to change.  In 2009, Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon sought to close 52 parishes.  Thirteen Cleveland area parishes raised an appeal to the Vatican. Recently, the Holy See miraculously approved of all 13 appeals.  In the Archdiocese of Detroit, 53 parishes are slated to be closed or reorganized per the plan of Archbishop Allen Vigneron, including the renowned  Assumption Grotto parish.  It will be interesting to see  if the Vatican is as accommodating to any Motor City parish appeals.

The Falls Church Anglican is a parish in which its steadfast faith caused them to lose their church home.  But a church is more than just a building, it is a community of faith.  They risked their security to do what they believe the Holy Spirit called them to do.  May they continue to flourish as they steadfastly walk in their Christian faith.

St. Aloysius is in the process of discerning their path as the sands of time shift.  St. Al’s parishoners are not faced with doctrinal decisions but must discern what is important to them.  They must weigh how important is Jesuit spirituality and consider the challenges of how they can remain as a parish at a time of dwindling priestly capital.

There are no easy answers.  But in accordance with Canon Law, the Archdiocese of Washington along with the Jesuit Maryland Province will hold a joint parish meeting on March 18th, 2012 to hear voices from the faithful on the situation.


It's Not About Me. said...

Nice article. St. Als is a georgeous building in walking to Georgetown Law Center. It would be a great idea if Holy Trinity and/or Jesuits ran it in conjunction with programs at the Berkeley Center and Woodstock for Religion, Law and Public Policy events closer to the law school. When I went to Georgetown Law in the late 80s I didn't even know that chapel/church was there- the law school should attempt to exposure students more to catholic life in Washington- especially for the catholic students there.
I hope it all stays Jesuit and they figure out how to do more programming closer to the school and Hill in the way of educational outreach

El Barroco said...

Thanks for the kudos. The Maryland Jesuit Province is trying to divest itself from running St. Al's but they still hope to have a vibrant ad hoc presence along with Gonzaga H.S. The Province specifically vetoed having its cross town sister parish Holy Trinity make St. Al's a mission church.

I doubt that Woodstock would move from the Georgetown campus.

Some may make arguments that G'town Law is nominally Catholic. My experience at another Jesuit JD program is that spiritual resources are there if you want them but they are not pushed in Grad School.

I hope that they keep the Jesuit charism at St. Al's but the people need to determine what they want as a parish. Faith formation is key and some alternatives make CCD questionable.