It is always extremely sad when a church has to be closed. The process leaves many people feeling deeply hurt and let down. A church is not just a building: it is a focal point for its members to come together to help and encourage each other in the practice of their faith. No two parishes are the same: each has its own strengths and weaknesses, organisations, support systems and leadership. Within a parish community there is a unique sense of belonging, of identity and of being part of a family who have shared together – often for many decades – the joys and the sorrows that come with the territory of being a loved and valued member of that family.
Years ago, when we were blessed with many churches and large congregations, it was unusual for a parish priest to be without at least one curate to assist him. There was no shortage of vocations so he also had the support of the parish sisters. The curates were able to develop their vocations, learn 'on the job' and be comparatively free from major responsibilities; indeed most remained as curates for many years.
Today's picture is very different. The dearth of vocations to the priesthood means that the newly ordained can quickly find themselves in charge of a parish – or two. Families are smaller and fewer practise their faith. This impacts upon the size of the congregations and the funds available to run and maintain the church buildings. Hence the closures across the country, leaving immeasurable distress in their wake.
The decision to close a church is never taken lightly. The genuine anguish of the hierarchy, who put the final stamp of approval to set the process in motion, can be underestimated. Ralph, the 'victim' of one such closure, likened his pain to that of bereavement. Many of his former congregation dispersed to other parishes. He became, in his own words, "a nomad", attending Mass in whichever church was convenient for him at the time.
Ralph's life changed from being an active member of his former parish to someone who picked up a newsletter from a different church almost every week and was neither involved in their activities, nor able to recognise any of the names contained in the lists of sick or newly deceased parishioners.
The crunch came when Ralph realised he no longer knew anyone at all. He did not know the names of the people who offered the handshake at the sign of peace – and nor did they know his. His sense of isolation deepened: he was an unknown in the congregation.
Ralph's health began to fail and while he was at a friend's funeral, he started to think about his own inevitable demise, whether imminent or many years in the future. He realised that as he no longer belonged to a parish, there would be no parishioners to mourn his passing, pray for him or be present at his funeral. Things had to change; he needed to select a parish and put down roots once again. Ralph found that parish. It wasn't long before the people addressed him by name, and he was able to reciprocate. He is now very much part of his new community and no longer looks upon it as a place in which he can die, but instead as a place where he can live.
Jesus told us that, even when we say goodbye, when something must break open and die like a grain of wheat, it turns into something stronger than it was before. As important as the church building is to its community, it is the people who are the Church.