MERCED, Calif. — More than 5,000 parishioners packed the pews, the choir loft and the vestibule on a recent weekend at Sacred Heart Church here in California’s Central Valley for five Masses — four of them in Spanish. Young Hispanic families spilled outside onto the steps, straining to hear the homily over the roar of an elevated freeway across the street.
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Across the country in Philadelphia, there is only one weekend Mass now at Our Lady Help of Christians, a church built by and for German immigrants in 1898. The clock in its tower has stopped. The parochial school next door is closed. Only 53 worshipers, most of them with white hair, gathered for Mass on a recent Sunday in the soaring Gothic sanctuary.
The legacy of the Rev. Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish missionary, is hard to miss in Ventura, Calif. At Serra Cross Park, a replica of the cross he placed to guide travelers is a centerpiece.
The Roman Catholic Church that Pope Francis will encounter on his first visit to the United States is being buffeted by immense change, and it is struggling — with integrating a new generation of immigrants, with conflicts over buildings and resources, with recruiting priests and with retaining congregants. The denomination is still the largest in the United States, but its power base is shifting.
On the East Coast and in the Midwest, bishops are closing or merging parishes and shuttering parochial schools built on the dimes and sweat of generations of European immigrants. In many parishes, worshipers are sparse, funerals outnumber baptisms, and Sunday collections are not enough to maintain even beloved houses of worship.
In the West and the South, and in some other unexpected pockets all over the country, the church is bursting at the seams with immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Latin America, but also from Asia and Africa. Hispanic parents put their children on waiting lists for religious education classes and crowd into makeshift worship spaces, but avoid predominantly Anglo parishes because they do not always feel welcome there.
“The ethnic face of the church is changing, and the center of gravity and influence in the church is shifting from the East to the West, and from the North to the South,” Archbishop José H. Gómez of Los Angeles said.
He added: “Pope Francis knows all of this. He knows the face of the church is changing, he knows the country’s Hispanic Catholic heritage, and he knows how important Hispanics are for the future of the church.”
Yet the church’s leadership in America has not kept pace. While more than one-third of the 68 million registered Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, just 28 out of 270 active bishops in the United States are, and only about 7.5 percent of priests identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to a report released last year.
The difficulties go beyond demographics.
The Catholic Church has lost members of all ages who say they have been alienated by the sexual abuse scandals, the exclusion of women and married men from the priesthood, the rejection of gay relationships and birth control, and the denial of communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.
Our Lady Help of Christians in Philadelphia is one of five churches in its neighborhood that are in danger of closing. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times
Where two decades ago, about one of every four Americans identified as Catholic, today it is about one of every five, part of a broader trend toward secularization. If ex-Catholics formed a church of their own, it would be the nation’s second largest, outranked by only the Catholic Church itself.
The challenge confronting Pope Francis this week as he visits Washington, New York and Philadelphia — where he will give most of his addresses in Spanish — is how to reach these many faces of American Catholicism: the fervent and the fallen-away; the liberals and the traditionalists; the anxious, shrinking white working-class churches in some areas, and underserved largely immigrant churches in others.
Francis is in many ways the right man for the moment. He is the first pope from Latin America. He is a son of immigrants who carried their faith with them from Italy to Argentina — a living bridge between the old immigrant church and the new.
And though Francis chose to visit the church’s declining East, he is in many ways addressing Hispanics in the West — the church’s future, and the nation’s — at a time when immigration and the change it brings are very live issues.
Two and a half years into his papacy, Francis is already much beloved. A new poll by The New York Times and CBS News shows that Francis is arriving in the United States on a wave of good will among American Catholics: 63 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of him, far above the 43 percent peak for his predecessor, the retired Benedict XVI, and nearly in line with the high mark for John Paul II in 2002, when 69 percent of Catholics said they viewed him favorably.
The poll shows that Francis has convinced many American Catholics that the church is more in touch with their needs today. A majority, 53 percent, said the church was in touch with Catholics’ needs, up from 39 percent in 2013. This was the biggest shift in opinion since pollsters started asking the question in 1987.
But there are divisions. A majority of Catholics in the Northeast, 53 percent, said the church was out of touch with the needs of Catholics today, compared with 38 percent of Catholics in the West and 29 percent of Catholics in the South.
Francis, perhaps most importantly, has yet to create a shift in the dynamics of attendance and participation. When asked if their attendance at church had changed over the last two years, 13 percent said they were going to Mass more often, but 12 percent said they were going less, and 74 percent said nothing had changed.
Shortage of Priests
The faithful formed two long lines inside Sacred Heart Church on a Friday afternoon last month, some waiting as long as two and a half hours to step into the confessional where they whispered their sins through the blue curtain to the Rev. Jesús Reynaga — the lone pastor in this humble parish.
Sacred Heart Church of Merced belongs to the Diocese of Fresno, which has more than doubled its membership over the last 10 years.
Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
It is like this every Friday at Sacred Heart. Father Reynaga’s Hispanic parishioners, many of them immigrants without legal status, have much faith and many problems, he said, and they all come to him.
“I tell them, ‘Please, tell me only your sins. Don’t tell me your stories,’ ” said Father Reynaga, 47, who emigrated from Mexico 10 years ago and is a permanent resident applying for citizenship. “People sometimes want to have counseling in confession. I tell them, ‘If you want counseling, please make an appointment with me.’ ”
It was Friday, a few hours before more confessions. His green eyes looked weary.
His appointment calendar is often booked for two or three weeks in advance, and sometimes he has to cancel to make emergency visits to the hospital or to anoint the sick. He has been masterful, his parishioners say, at delegating leadership, forming new parish groups and energizing laypeople. The parish has 40 religious school classes, and seven choirs, which take turns. But some things in the Catholic Church only the priest can do himself.
The Diocese of Fresno, home to this parish, is the fastest growing in the West, swelling with immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, the Philippines, Laos and Vietnam. Its size has more than doubled in 10 years, to 1.2 million members now from 581,000 in 2005, and Catholic leaders here say this is a vast undercount because many undocumented immigrants, out of fear, never register as parish members.
Resources are scarce. Priests are aging and stretched thin. Even among the children and grandchildren of those faithful Hispanic immigrants, the church is struggling to recruit clergy. One-fifth of American parishes have no resident priest at all, and many have a priest who is carrying on into his 70s or 80s.
The Rev. Jesús Reynaga talking with altar boys before a Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Merced, last month. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
In the Fresno diocese, one priest in Visalia is still celebrating Mass at age 91. When another priest died in February at the age of 76, the Rev. Dan Avila took over his parish, even though Father Avila already had a full-time job as the diocese’s vocations director, recruiting candidates for the priesthood and seeing them through seminary.
He wears a bracelet with beads bearing the first letter of the first name of each seminarian. As he prays for one of them, he focuses on the bead with that initial. Currently 25 men are in the seminary, and three-fourths of them are Hispanic.
But he has not seen any uptick in vocations since Francis became pope. The current class of seminarians, Father Avila said, “were heavily influenced by John Paul II.”
“They tend to be a little more conservative, a little more interested in the bells and whistles,” he continued. “I haven’t yet had guys saying that Pope Francis has really had an effect on them. The ripple effect takes a while.”
The Catholic Church is making an effort to attract Hispanics to the priesthood, but progress is slow. Nationwide, of the new priests ordained this year, 14 percent are Hispanic, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an interview. He called that “a good sign,” but added, “Given the numbers of Hispanic faithful that are out there, we have a lot of work to do.”
More than half of the Catholics younger than 25 in the United States are Hispanic. Last year the Archdiocese of Los Angeles baptized almost 70,000 infants — more than the total of infant baptisms in the archdioceses of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington combined, Archbishop Gómez said at a recent conference in Philadelphia. Most of those 70,000 are the children of immigrants, he said, and most are Hispanic.
At the headquarters of the Diocese of Fresno, two monsignors, a deacon and a female lay leader gathered around a small table last month to begin the groundwork for a new plan initiated by the bishop to cope with the lack of priests. They intend to recruit and train a corps of “parish life coordinators” to take on some administrative duties and free up priests for ministry. Many dioceses have already gone in this direction, but, until now, not Fresno.
Msgr. Raymond Dreiling, vicar general of the Fresno Diocese, said to the group: “How are people going to be prepared for this? It’s going to be a major shift in their understanding of parish leadership.”
Many priests — especially those from other countries — are not accustomed to turning over responsibilities to laypeople, Monsignor Dreiling said. “Their attitude is, ‘Father does everything,’ ” he said.
Altar boys with Father Reynaga during Mass at Sacred Heart Church. More than half of the Catholics younger than 25 in the United States are Hispanic. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
But the four leaders at the table agreed that the change would be beneficial as well as necessary. The diocese projects that it will lose 30 or 40 priests, out of 129, over the next 10 years to death and retirement. The diocese currently has 89 parishes, and 44 mission churches in remote and underserved communities. The deacon, Charles Reyburn, added that it was not just the priests who were aging and retiring, but the deacons as well.
“We used to have sisters, but we don’t have that anymore,” he said. “We have to get the laypeople involved.”
Francis has said that the church needs active laypeople, but that they should not be turned into clergy. In the meantime, priests like Father Reynaga carry a heavy load.
On a recent Saturday morning back at Sacred Heart Church, he baptized a lineup of eight babies and posed for eight portraits afterward with beaming families and godparents in their best dress clothes. Then he ducked into an all-day “retreat” in the parish hall for two dozen boys and girls who volunteer as altar servers, grabbing a banana and a slice of pizza with them for lunch.
When he sat down, the children scooted their chairs so close to him that he had to wave everyone back, laughing. He thanked them for their service and told them they were “indispensable” to the Mass. He reminded the girls to always come to serve at Mass with their hair pulled back and no makeup or painted nails. To the boys, he said he wanted to see shoes shined and no earrings. The dress code, he said, is “showing respect for the house of God.”
“I’m watching you guys,” he said, bringing two fingers to his eyes, then pointing back at the youngsters. The children of farm laborers and factory workers, teachers and truck drivers, they listened quietly.
Father Reynaga said the bishop called him last October and proposed that his parish merge with St. Patrick’s Parish, a modern, predominantly white church nearby with three priests. At Mass there that Saturday night, the sparsely occupied pews included mostly white parishioners, and only a sprinkling of Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans.
Father Reynaga said he told the bishop that the merger was not a good idea because Sacred Heart needed a priest present 24 hours a day. “The Hispanic people are very different,” he told the bishop.
Within one mile in the working-class Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia there are five stately churches engaged in a grim game of “Survivor.” They were founded by earlier waves of immigrants, but now the archdiocese has decreed that two or three of them will have to close. Will it be the Lithuanian parish? The Italian one? The German parish that has already lost its adjoining parochial school? The Polish parish? Or the parish with no particular ethnic affiliation?
On a recent Sunday, Lou Shoemaker was on his way to Mass at the Polish church, St. Adalbert’s, its twin green spires a landmark visible from Interstate 95. The sanctuary is spectacular, its gold, red and green shimmering in the light that streams through stained glass windows two stories high. It has four weekend Masses, two in English and two in Polish.
The Polish pope, John Paul II, celebrated Mass there in 1976 when he was still a cardinal. Now he is a saint, and St. Adalbert Church received a relic of him earlier this year for public veneration.
Mr. Shoemaker is among those neighbors who feel confident that St. Adalbert will survive the closings.
But it is nothing like what it once was, said Mr. Shoemaker, 85, who was baptized as a boy in the parish. “This church seats 600 people. If you went in there, you couldn’t get a seat,” he recalled.
“There’s nobody to replace them now. The young people don’t come to church,” said Mr. Shoemaker, who is retired from work as a drug wholesaler. “The Catholic religion is short on customers.”
While the Diocese of Fresno is overwhelmed with worshipers, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is desperate for them. It was once a Catholic powerhouse, rich in churches and schools, hospitals and donors, priests and congregants. It produced two famous saints: John Nepomucene Neumann, its fourth bishop, and Katharine Drexel, a nun from a wealthy family who dedicated her inheritance and her life to the education of blacks and Native Americans. Its archbishops have routinely received the red hat of a cardinal, with voting rights at papal conclaves.
But the heyday of the 1950s and ’60s — when most Catholics in Philadelphia attended Mass at least once a week — did not last. Families shrank and moved to the suburbs. More Catholic men and women chose the professions over religious life.
By the time Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was named to take over in Philadelphia four years ago, the archdiocese had hit a historical low. In the wake of another scathing grand jury report, four priests and a parochial school teacher were under indictment and a senior church official was facing criminal charges for covering up sexual abuse.
The archdiocese had a debt of $300 million, Archbishop Chaput said in an interview, and about 60 percent of the parishes were being subsidized by the other 40 percent. Many had “huge buildings” that were inefficient and needed repairs, he said. And Mass attendance throughout the archdiocese, even in the suburbs, had dropped. “When they don’t come,” he said, “they don’t give.”
He has sold nursing homes, leased seminary buildings, and closed or merged 47 of 266 parishes. “That’s been very painful, especially the ethnic parishes,” he said.
Three blocks from the Polish church with the green spires, the Rev. Dennis Z. Fedak hustled down East Allegheny Avenue, his collar open in the rising heat. He was about to unlock the doors and turn on the air-conditioning for the noon Mass at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He had just come from unlocking the doors and setting up for the 10 a.m. Mass at the German parish, Our Lady Help of Christians.
Worshipers at a Mass at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary church in Philadelphia this month.
Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times
Father Fedak is the parish priest for both of these churches, and he also serves as the administrator of the nearby Catholic school, which has about 400 students. He cannot leave the churches open because of vandalism, he said: Thieves once stole the handles right off the doors of the Nativity church.
The two parishes were “twinned” about five years ago, he said, and his parishioners are awaiting a verdict from the archdiocese on whether one of them will have to close.
“Their ancestors built this parish,” he said, pointing out a plaque at the corner of the Nativity church etched with 1890, the year the cornerstone was laid. “They’re anxious. They say, ‘We know we have to close a church, but don’t close mine.’ ”
Joanne Keen, 68, and her sister, Dorothy Dimmick, 76, were on their way to the 10 a.m. Mass at Our Lady Help of Christians, which still has the stations of the cross in German. They climbed the steps, which feature peeling paint and the faint smell of urine. The parish is known by some in the city as a “dead parish walking.”
“My kids went to school there, were baptized there, were confirmed there,” said Mrs. Keen, who was wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey to Mass. Closing the parish, she said, would mean “devastation.”
Archbishop Chaput said he had spent 20 minutes with Pope Francis in the Vatican in February and briefed him on the situation in Philadelphia.
“I told him he could be a source of healing for us after the pain of the last several years,” he said. “The church here, we’ve had it bad. And we’re in need of healing.”