September 7, 2012

Catholic Church numbers down since '50s


---- — The recent closing of St. Mary’s School in Champlain is part of the seismic changes in the American Catholic Church since the 1950s. 

Locals remember other Roman Catholic schools that have suffered a similar fate: St. Augustine’s in Peru, which my children attended; St. Alexander’s in Morrisonville; St. Johns, Our Lady of Victory, and Mount Assumption Institute in Plattsburgh.

Fifty years ago, Catholic schools weren’t closing, they were thriving. And as I watched a granddaughter graduate from Peru Central School in June, I thought back to my graduation from a very Catholic high school.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y. — covering Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties — was created in 1957. Its first bishop, Walter Kellenberg, came from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg. A year later, St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary admitted its first class, about 100 ninth-grade boys who wanted to become priests or believed they “had a vocation,” in the vernacular of the day. We graduated from that Long Island school in 1962.

Our education was normal for the times. We learned some physics and geometry, Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables,” Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” a bit of history and the U.S. Constitution. It was like other high schools, though we also read poet Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” and visited Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker in New York City.

But it was our plan to be priests — when we were 25(!) — that set us apart and made our school different. While sex was never far from our adolescent minds, dates with girls were forbidden. And every day at school, we celebrated Mass, entering a chapel that had an inscription in Latin urging us “to be of Christ, not of ourselves.” Rituals full of candles, bells and incense were regular parts of our lives. The rosary hung from our Chevy gear shift, and a St. Christopher medal was pinned to the car’s ceiling.

Our world was very Catholic.

About that Catholicism, we had faith in the religious sense but also confidence in the institution. It was a wonderful time to be a Catholic. Pope John XXIII was popular and respected, his views on social issues taken seriously even by the secular press. Catholic John Kennedy, who had told the world on a cold and clear sunlit January day “that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own,” was in the White House. Perhaps late to the battle, Catholics were now more prominent in the civil rights movement.

Catholic statistics gave us confidence, too. In 1965, there were almost 59,000 priests in America, and many young men were preparing to join them. In 1967, 22,000 men were at college and graduate-level seminaries, and 16,000 kids went to 160 high schools like St. Pius X.

The church’s future looked bright — more Catholics, more seminarians, more priests.

Then something happened.

Maybe it was the Vietnam War. The number of combatants reached a critical mass, so everyone knew someone impacted by the war, and government explanations didn’t make sense when we saw the damage coming home. Was there a spillover of distrust for other institutions, such as the church?

Or the women’s movement, rebelling against the social hierarchy that favored males? Did Catholic mothers who once encouraged their sons to be priests look at this religious men-only club and tell their boys to find another career?

Was it sex? The birth-control pill changed dating, marriage and sex’s place in our lives. Did adults get impatient with advice from unmarried priests on how to be good spouses? If kids heard their parents dismiss the pastor — “he hasn’t a clue” — did the priesthood become less attractive?

I don’t know the cause, but the effect was obvious. By 1977, the number of seminarians was down 58 percent, from 21,500 to 9,000. And high-school students, like us at St. Pius X, dropped 62 percent — from 16,000 to 6,000 — in the same time.

The number of religious sisters — the teachers in Catholic schools — dropped about 24 percent in the same 10 years.

Today there are 5,000 seminarians and 39,000 priests. But preparatory seminaries like St. Pius X are almost extinct. There are eight in America, with 532 students.

Our class mirrored the national statistics. Of the 106 students who started in 1958, only seven became priests.

I was not one of them.

And our high school, St. Pius X? It closed its doors in 1984, like St. Mary’s in 2012.

— Statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University.

For years, Jerry McGovern was the Press-Republican’s coordinator of Newspapers-in-Education. He also taught in New York state’s public schools and now teaches in the Communications Department at Plattsburgh State. This column is the opinion of the writer and not necessarily of this newspaper.