Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Crisis Ranks the Church

In its current edition, Crisis magazine issued its decennial report on the "State of the Catholic Church in America, Diocese by Diocese." It was passed around a couple weeks back, and given the popular clamor for anything that's digested in Top-10/50/100 form, it's a bit surprising to not see it covered elsewhere of yet.

Thing is, it's eye-opening -- and, most importantly (and gratefully), not ideologically skewed. Could the data-sets included be more comprehensive? Sure; the criteria used to crank out the rankings of the 176 Latin-rite dioceses of the US were the proportional change in the number of active diocesan priests, the number of ordinations as percentage of the active presbyterate, and the number of adult receptions as percentage of total Catholics in a place. But even for just those three, what came to the fore is indeed "a very good start" and is worthy of note. (However, to accept the published figure that, amidst of an unprecedented cycle of abuse revelations, parish closings and reconfigurations, the archdiocese of Boston grew by 98% to a Catholic population of 3.9 million does more than simply strain credulity.)

Top honors went to the diocese of Knoxville, with Savannah, Kalamazoo, Alexandria, Pensacola-Tallahassee, Birmingham, Wheeling-Charleston, Anchorage, Biloxi and Lansing rounding out the top ten. The archdiocese of Hartford ranked last, with such prominent (arch)dioceses as Boston, Milwaukee, Providence, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Rockville Centre in the bottom 20.

Even more worthwhile and instructive than the rankings, however, are the broader findings the authors were able to pick up. Significant among these are that size (read: institutionalization) inhibits the health and energy of a local church, that the diocesan website is a window into the place's soul ("Good signs: easy access to substantive information for persons considering becoming Catholic, returning to the Faith, or considering a vocation. Bad signs: prominently featuring on the home page references to clergy abuse or helpful guides to making an on-line donation.") and, most importantly, that it all rides on the example present at the helm -- in a word, the bishop matters. Big time.

As the analysis put it, "the number-one factor that accounts for this variation [of rank] is the quality of the diocesan leadership....
The most striking similarity is that successful bishops attribute their success to the Holy Spirit. The motto of the number one–ranked diocese in the country—Knoxville, Tennessee—is “Hope in the Lord.” This motto captures the prevailing attitude among bishops of the most vibrant dioceses.

Successful bishops are joyful. They evince an enthusiasm for the Faith and for the Church. They are unabashedly confident in what the Faith offers and teaches; they are not apologetic for being Catholic.

Successful bishops assume personal responsibility for the outcomes that are their priorities. They are personally involved in leading men to discern a vocation.... They are personally involved in promoting the morale of their priests. And they are investing themselves in programs of evangelization.

In critiquing a diocese, priests often cited the willingness (or unwillingness) of the bishop and his curia to be open to reassessing the success or failure of pastoral initiatives. This is especially true of vocations. Most priests can cite the influence of one or several priests who initiated a process within them to begin considering a call to the priesthood. In contrast, there are men who declare that they never considered the priesthood because they were never invited to consider it.

Finally, successful bishops are unwilling to acquiesce to decline. They are intent on doing their part to help the Church flourish.
"Doing their part...." Hmm. We could never have enough of that, and here's to more of it; clearly, it works wonders... and the lack of it works, um, something else.