Back in the good old hippie days we used to sing, “It’s a hard rain’s agonna fall.” I think it was written by Bob Dylan. He was right. There is a hard rain agonna fall but, it isn’t the rain we were expecting. No one expected the Soviet Union to break up. No one expected that we would all carry around little television screens in our pockets by means of which we could instantly communicate with someone on the other side of the world. No one seriously suspected that robotic life might one day be able to surpass human life.
When I was in college, the university had a computer. It was the size of a large room. People holding punch cards stood in line for the chance to use it. Now computers are small enough to fit in our pockets and everyone has a few of them. No one thought that the world would be torn apart over looming religious wars. And above all, no one thought that the world population might one day collapse. Who could have anticipated that places like Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Germany, China, Russia, and Japan as well as Iran and other Islamic countries would become retirement homes full of an increasing number of dependent old people? Those are some of the countries where there are simply not enough children. I will be dead and gone by the time it happens, but people under the age of twenty may well face a frightening poverty stricken old age. There is a strong probability that around 2050AD the population of spaceship earth will begin to shrink. Certainly Europe, Asia and the Americas will. Africa may continue to value children for a while yet, but who knows?
No one expected this. You might think fewer people on earth might be a good thing. What we are facing is not fewer people but fewer young people. No one to do the heavy lifting. No one to buy that stuff that makes an economy happen. No one to buy the cars, the computers, the fast food, the machine made clothing or the machines for that matter. No one to buy the houses. Things have gotten surreal in places like Italy, Spain and Japan. There are whole villages for sale, cheap! Italy is fascinating. Think about it.
After three generations of no families you have the situation in which there are four people, each of whom inherited one house. Those four people marry and each couple has one child. Now you have two people with four houses. Those two marry and produce a third generation consisting of one child. That one child inherits the four houses of his great grandparents which are now worth almost nothing.
Real estate, the most valuable possession most people have, becomes worthless; in fact, it becomes a liability. Within the next few years we clergy in the US of A will probably see what they are seeing in Europe, lots of ecclesiastical real estate for sale. It is just beginning here. All of a sudden, there are more churches than we need. There are not enough priests to staff them and in ten years, certainly twenty years there will be no one to warm their pews because the dear little old ladies who pay the bills and come to church anytime the doors are unlocked are going to their well-deserved heavenly reward by the busload. I wonder if the people who need to experience this new situation ever really do.
When an important church dignitary comes to a parish for an important event, he sees a full church. I wonder if said dignitary ever drops in on a church on a steamy Sunday morning in July, a church that is a third full of a congregation that has no one in it under the age of forty. We count the house annually to total up the numerical strength of the church. The pastor dutifully signs the report, which is never an underestimate. If father loves his parish he is certainly not going to lowball the figures. We, the clergy, once had job security. It was assumed that father would leave his rectory feet first. In my youth there were two kinds of pastors, irremovable pastors who could only be removed by the pope and removable pastors who could only be removed by the pope.
In 1972, some young progressives petitioned Rome to implement term limits for pastors. Now a pastor’s term of office is six years, renewable for another six. A pastor is allowed to love a congregation for 12 years max unless the bishop decides he can stay longer. Then the priest will have to go love another congregation. Don’t ask father what’s going on. He doesn’t have the job security. He isn’t prone to making objective reports on the health of his parish. Bishops see full churches. Pastors see what they need to see in order to keep going. Ask the funeral directors. They can tell you what’s going on. They have great job security. As they say about cemeteries, people are just dying to get in. Funeral directors see a lot of parishes and they see very representative congregations.
My small experience indicates that a Caucasian-American funeral often has no one in attendance younger than forty. A funeral parlor full of adults may produce 2 or 3 children. As often as not when a priest says “The Lord be with you,” at the funeral Mass, much of the congregation looks blankly at him as if to say, “Okay!” – that is when the next generation bothers with the expense of a Mass. They don’t go to church and they plan to scatter Grandma in her vegetable garden. “Father, couldn’t you just do a service in the funeral parlor?”
A friend, a devout man who has spent his life serving the needy, was recently at a funeral of a longtime friend. The deceased had left the church over some scandal or other on top of which he had been “assessed” a large sum in a parish fundraising event. In his later years he had come back to the church, but had been away from the faith during the years he was raising his family. My friend got into a discussion with the dead man’s son who, though baptized in infancy, had never participated in the church nor received the other sacraments. He asked my friend a simple question about the faith, “Why do I need it?” Good question.
Next week: Why he needs it.