Written January 14, 2008     

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© 2016 Bob Lonsberry


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Why is the Rochester diocese dying?

Is it the general decline of American Catholicism, or is it something particular to Rochester?

Is it the long-serving bishop? Is it the rise of evangelical and pentacostal churches? Is it Vatican II? Is it the result of changing demographics?

What is killing the Rochester Roman Catholic Diocese? And, is there anything that can be done to reverse the trend?

Those are questions that are being recklessly ignored. Second only to the decline of Eastman Kodak, the decline of the Catholic diocese is the greatest threat to the stability and future of the Rochester region. For generations, strong Catholic parishes and strong Catholic families have been among the bedrock strengths of the Rochester community. For generations, many of the strongest and most useful leaders -- the doctors and judges and mayors and businessmen -- have come from faithful Catholic families.

At the heart of so many of our towns and neighborhoods was the parish, and at the heart of so many of our best citizens was a faith in and fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church.

But that has changed. Rochester's Catholics of prominence are mostly middle-aged and elderly. Where 40 years ago Fulton Sheen spoke an inspiring brand of faith from Rochester, today the region's lackluster relationship with Catholicism sends no good message whatsoever. It became a peace-and-justice church, then it became an empty church. Parishes are closing throughout the region. Masses are being cancelled and in days the bishop is expected to announce the closing of a quarter of the already decimated stable of parochial schools.

Schools that have lost 45 percent of their students in the last decade -- 9 percent in the last year.

The Rocheser diocese is dying.

For whatever reason, the children and grandchildren of faithful Rochester Catholics aren't. Why that is is a topic for another day.

The topic today is: What can be done to change it?

First, let me say, I'm not the best person to offer advice. The main reason is that, though I admire Catholicism and Catholics -- and I am a huge fan of this pope and his predecessor -- I don't believe in the Catholic Church. My religious views are different. My real passion would be for getting people into the church I attend, not the Catholic Church.

But I don't hear any Catholics addressing the subject, much less offering suggestions. So I'll take a whack at it.

Prosteltyze and advertise.

Not to be dismissive, but it's that simple. Spread the word and buy ads. Built numbers the way every church builds numbers and sell product the way every business sells product. This is not hard.

For whatever reason, in today's politically correct world, prosteltyzing -- trying to get people to join your church -- is seen as a bad thing. It's almost as if it's intolerant, or not respectful of multiculturalism. Rochester Catholics are woefully bad at inviting their neighbors to church or at trying to save their neighbors' souls.

Because that's what it's about, right? It's not just about the bingo, is it? Doesn't the Roman Catholic Church teach that it is the way to heaven, that the pope is the successor to St. Peter, that the sacraments are only authorized when performed by a Catholic priest? If Catholics believe those things, then it seems like they'd have a keen interest in sharing them with their neighbors. It's not a social hall, after all, it's a church.

And the Catholic Church has been pretty good through the ages at getting people to join. Swords are no longer acceptable as pursuaders to conversion, but it seems like there ought to be some zeal left. A church which once circled the globe looking for souls to save ought to have the gumption to come up with an invite-a-friend-to-church program. Maybe instead of constant lectures on feeding the poor there might be a homily or two on saving their souls.

Make more Catholics by making more Catholics. Spread the good news, challenge people to consider their eternal future, tell them why you are Catholic, talk to them about Jesus. That's how it's been done -- swords notwithstanding -- for 2,000 years. There's no reason to believe it won't work today.

Now, about advertising. As excellent Catholic schools die left and right due to lack of students, the diocese seems to have no marketing plan whatsoever to the community at large. Catholics interested in parochial school now what to do. Non-Catholics who might like their children to have one of the best educations possible should be told that parochial school is a great value and and great school.

A good example in that regard would be Roberts Wesleyan College. A local school, it's roots are in the Free Methodist movement and it remains an essentially religious school. And yet it advertises various of its degree programs aggressively and broadly. The consequence is that, instead of drying up and blowing away, it seems to be doing quite well, and educating a good number of people. Why don't Catholic parochial schools do the same? Roberts Wesleyan educates more than Methodists and parish schools can educate more than Catholics.

Prosteltyze and advertise.

Convert and convince.

That's how the Rochester diocese can save itself. That's how any church, business or organization can save itself.

Let's see if the diocese will try, or if it will be content to sell off its assets as it dwindles and dies. Who knows, maybe someday soon to see the bishop area Catholics will have to go to Buffalo. And a last note to area Catholics: If your church doesn't want you, mine does.

- by Bob Lonsberry © 2008

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