Renew My Church
By Fr. Tirso Villaverde
St. Thomas of Canterbury, Chicago
In the last few months, Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of Chicago (Cook and Lake Counties) have been hearing these words, “Renew My Church.” It is an effort being promoted by Archbishop Cupich in the hopes of addressing major needs within the Archdiocese. Now, to be clear, he is not referring to the Church as if the Church belongs to him. Rather, Archbishop Cupich has used this phrase as a reminder of one of the life experiences of St. Francis of Assisi.
At one point in his life, St. Francis of Assisi was praying in the abandoned church of San Damiano. There is a well known crucifix of San Damiano that most Catholics have seen on various occasions. It is the crucifix that has been long associated with the Franciscan order of priests and religious. The story goes that Jesus himself spoke to St. Francis of Assisi from that very crucifix that was hanging in the dilapidated church of San Damiano. The message that Jesus gave to St. Francis of Assisi, “Rebuild (renew) my church.”
On one level, the message seemed to have referred to that one specific building that had been allowed to fall into ruin. The church of San Damiano was no longer a symbol of faith that it once was. So, on some level, St. Francis of Assisi heard the voice of Jesus instructing him to rebuild that one church. St. Francis did just this. He began to move stones and rubble himself. People began to think that he was insane for starting what seemed to be an impossible task all by himself. Yet, by his persistenc, St. Francis inspired many others to help and eventually the church was rebuilt and it still stands to this day.
Archbishop Blase Cupich promotes “Renew My Church”
On another level and at the same time, the words “Renew my church” could refer to the church as the community of faith, the family of God, the People of God. In this, St. Francis interpreted the message of Jesus as a call to conversion of life where he was called to turn away from whatever it was that drained him of the life he shared in Jesus and renew in himself the gift of God that gave St. Francis the strength to be ever more faithful to the mission entrusted to him. Seeing the message as a call to conversion, St. Francis began with himself. He dedicated himself to changing whatever in him needed to be changed. He focused on turning away from every sinful inclination that prevented him from hearing the voice of God most clearly. St. Francis renewed his life because, as part of the Church, he felt he needed to begin with himself which was the most logical place to start. In this way, rebuilding the actual structure of the San Damiano church simply became an external expression of St. Francis’ internal spiritual journey.
Archbishop Cupich has been calling all Catholics in the Archdiocese to this very same spirit. He has used the example of St. Francis to remind Catholics to renew in ourselves the very spirit of God that gives us the direction to remain faithful to the call of God in our own lives. He has used the San Damiano experience of St. Francis to give us the tools we will need to focus on strengthening the mission of the Church in Chicago and, as a result, renewing the Church of Jesus that is represented in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
What will this look like concretely? At this stage, no one really knows. Yet, there is one thing that seems to be clear. Too many resources are being used to maintain buildings that, oftentimes, such expenses are draining the life out of parish communities that are unable to keep up with the cost. As a result, the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News in word and action begins to be lost overshadowed by the need to sustain the physical needs of physical structures. Many of those buildings are so old and in such disrepair that the maintenance and/or repair will cost much more. Although money should never be the force that drives the mission of a faith community, we must admit that when expenses keep rising it is oftentimes that much more difficult to focus on the true mission of the faith community.
Added to this, there is also the reality that the number of Archdiocesan priests will be reduced dramatically in the next five to ten years. Even though the Archdiocese is ordaining a good number of new priests each year, the number of priests who are nearing retirement or even their own deaths is nearly double. Within that time, there will not even be enough priests to serve as pastors to the 360 existing parishes of the Archdiocese. If that were to be the case, the burden on us priests will be so great that we run the risk of seriously wearing ourselves out and, in the end, not being full of life ourselves.
“Renew My Church” is a call by the Archbishop for all the parishes of the Archdiocese to give stronger focus on the mission of the Church rather than simply maintaining buildings. Part of this may require parishes to pull together and share resources. It may also necessitate the closing or merging of some parishes with others. At this point, the Church in Chicago is simply in the research and planning phase. Still, unless something changes, the Church’s focus in Chicago may continue to be in the wrong place and the message and mission of the Gospel will go unheard. This is the need that Archbishop Cupich has been asking all Catholics in the Archdiocese to keep in prayer.