Of all the priests in our diocese there is one in particular who you might call our “living history book.” I have had many occasions to listen to Father Dick Partika talk about everything and anything you wanted to know about the history of the Diocese of Duluth. I have always been amazed at all the facts he has contained in his memory, so if he is reading this column he might very well find reason to confirm or correct what I am about to say.
As I write this, I am half a century old. In these past 50 years, in the city of Duluth, we have had a lot of parishes close permanently. According to my “non-Father Partika” memory these are the names of the churches that have closed during my lifetime: Good Shepherd, Holy Cross, St. Margaret Mary, St. Joseph’s in the Heights, St. Joseph’s in Lakewood, Sacred Heart, St. Anthony, St. Clement’s, St. Jean’s, Sts. Peter and Paul, Holy Rosary Chapel, St. Peter’s, and Our Lady of Mercy.
That is 13 Catholic churches closed, and in Duluth proper there are only 10 that remain. We might say that a dwindling population is the cause of such contraction, but the city of Duluth has not lost 65 % of its population in the last 50 years, not even close. It might be more likely that it is a combination of fewer Catholics practicing their faith along with the fewer men answering the call to priesthood. Either way, both could accurately be called a tragedy.
Every parish closure is also a tragedy. Thankfully, as a priest I have never been in an assignment that I had to oversee a closure; I am thankful for that, because I know how much pain and anguish there is for the parishioners. Think of your own parish church and all the memoires associated with it, from weddings to funerals to Confirmations and first Communions, not to mention all the other social gatherings that have happened in those sacred walls.
No doubt our Catholic faith is much, much bigger than any parish church, but it still hurts to see your place of worship come to an end.
Jesus is pretty clear on our need to pray for vocations when he says, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are scarce. Beg the harvest master to send out laborers for his harvest: (Matthew 9:37-38). The vocations prayer which was penned by Bishop Dennis Schnurr while he shepherded our diocese was not meant to be a nifty way to conclude our petitions at Mass. No, Bishop Schnurr made it abundantly clear the absolute need we have to pray for more vocations, particularly for priests. Thirteen closed parishes in the city of Duluth over 50 years is the exclamation mark for such a need.
I would implore my brother priests to make sure we keep praying our vocation prayer at each Mass. Do not drop the practice, as our diocese’s future is literally on the line. And I would implore the faithful of the diocese to keep praying for vocations as well, and encouraging them whenever you see a young man who you think just might have the call.
One way of looking at this need is to figure out: when was the last priestly vocation that came out of your parish? There are some parishes in our diocese that have been “rock stars” of vocations, but there are far more other parishes that have not seen a single vocation in years or even decades. That is not a good sign of parish life. All too often I think parishioners just assume that there will be a priest that comes to serve their parish, that they will always be provided for, but that is not necessarily so. Just ask the people from any one of those closed parishes that I listed above.
We as the faithful need to foster vocations to keep our parishes viable and vibrant. We cannot assume that some other parish will produce the vocation we need to keep our parish open. We must beg the harvest master for laborers and then encourage them when we see a potential priestly candidate.
To my way of thinking, the best thing ever said about this issue of vocations and parish life was said by Pope St. John Paul the Great when he was a bishop speaking to seminarians and seminary staff: “If there is a lack of vocations to the priesthood in a Christian community, if they are not born, if they do not come to the seminaries, if they do not reach priesthood, then the community bears a negative witness of itself as a Christian community, revealing its inner weakness, proving to be a poor soil.”
Beg the harvest master for laborers.