This is a simple post because the claim is so puzzling.
Bishop Monforton cited declining Mass attendance as a reason to merge the Diocese of Steubenville into Columbus.
The numbers I’ve been able to see, however, show that while the number of Catholics who come to Mass on a given Sunday is down 24 percent since 2000, about half of that decline has happened since 2017. Plus, the corresponding numbers for Columbus and Youngstown are not better.
But regarding Steubenville, and the decline in Mass attendance since 2017… What has happened since 2017?
Well, the financial scandal for one. A vicar general and a comptroller stole hundreds of thousands of dollars for fancy clothes, nice vacations, and flying lessons. In a hardscrabble area like this that’s a massive hit to the Church’s credibility. That alone would take hard work and years of honest dealing and transparency to rebuild trust.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Bishop Monforton has resisted the kind of transparency about the finances that many think would be appropriate in the present situation.
And some with a more in-depth knowledge have told me that the Bishop’s claim that he took action immediately upon learning about the embezzlement isn’t exactly true.
And then, as if the hit of that financial scandal wasn’t enough, we endured a pandemic. Churches closed everywhere. Mass online became an acceptable replacement. Bishops, including Monforton, showed little hurry to prioritize the administering of the sacraments over avoiding lawsuits and/or bad PR from re-opening churches “too soon.”
The results have been predictably disastrous for society at large and for the Church. Dioceses all over have seen significant declines in Mass attendance as a consequence of the pandemic. In Steubenville, a community of lay faithful already reeling from the financial scandal was just hammered by the pandemic. Frankly, it’s a credit to the faith of this community that our decline wasn’t greater!
Now consider that during the same time frame considered — 2000 to present — the Diocese of Youngstown saw a 36 percent decline in Mass attendance, and the Diocese of Columbus a 23 percent decline. To repeat, Steubenville’s decline is 24 percent.
We’re only slightly worse than Columbus, and much better than Youngstown.
What this says to me is we have a tremendous opportunity. A hard-working and devoted shepherd could work with his pastors and lay faithful, including the students at Franciscan University who are on fire for the work of evangelization, to reverse these numbers.
This is why I started by say the claim is so puzzling. This claim basically says, “I found the work too hard and decided the most prudent course of action was to abandon it.”
But evangelization is the work of the Church. It was the specific charge given by Christ to the Apostles before he ascended and was hidden by a cloud. The bishop is the Apostle to this local Church. He is the chief teacher and evangelist of the diocese. Working to bring people back to Mass, to bring them to Christ is the bishop’s job.
In this diocese at present that has elements apart from sharing the Gospel, due to the financial scandal and the scandal of shutting down the churches for so long. But these MUST be overcome.
The bishop — frankly, this is true whether it’s Monforton or Fernandes — MUST work to restore trust. He must work to reignite a desire for the Eucharist. He must work to find and bring back the sheep who have strayed.
Our Mass attendance numbers don’t bespeak a dying Diocese, they bespeak a disillusioned flock that can be open to an invitation to return.
Which bishop is better-positioned to do that: a bishop in Steubenville, who is set aside for work with this part of the flock? Or a bishop in Columbus who has 23 counties already demanding his attention?
And then there’s the question of the priest shortage. Since a merger would necessarily mean fewer priests, and perhaps fewer parishes, in our area, Mass and confession and spiritual guidance would become even less common. How will that help with Mass attendance numbers?
I keep coming back to the thought that the only problem this merger would actually solve would be the cathedral question. Suddenly we’d have one.