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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Op-Ed: Closing St. Irenaeus Solves Nothing

St. Irenaeus Church closing, Church front with tall steeple
St. Irenaeus Church in Park Forest (Photo John Hudzik)
By John Ostenburg

I am deeply saddened to hear of St. Irenaeus closing, in large part because I think the parish had developed something of a unique community-oriented process of worship that made it a site of welcome to Catholics of varied spiritual perspectives. I think traditionalists felt welcomed, as well as progressives; to the extent the greater Church allows, women have been given much more substantive roles in the worship process than is found in many other Catholic congregations; certainly, an inner-racial atmosphere has existed over the last several years; no one ever preached in a manner that would make members of the LGBTQ community feel uncomfortable. To a great extent, all of that was the result of good work by the last two pastors. Obviously, a different pastor could have caused all of it to come to a halt.

Furthermore, I’m saddened for Park Forest. It is disheartening to see so many of our institutions disappear. Several of our churches and temples have closed over the last several years. Fortunately, some have been taken over by new congregations and that is good for the community; but some others have not. Add to that the closing of Rich East, the closing of banks, and the great difficulty in keeping businesses, and it equals increasingly fewer community services.

The closing itself, however, was something that I was expecting, given the process that the Archdiocese has been using for making decisions under “Renew My Church.” St. Irenaeus had a committed congregation but certainly not a large one; the amount of revenue generated by the congregation was far from what is found is parishes such as the two that are remaining open; the physical campus is one that is in need of much costly repair. So the decision to close, while disheartening, was not unexpected on my part.

The problem, however, is greater than the closing of individual churches. The problem is the reason behind why churches are being closed. Those reasons are twofold, in my estimation: (1) ever-declining numbers of congregants; (2) fewer and fewer priests available to serve the parishes. But guess what? Closing churches solves neither of those problems. In fact, some folks are so upset when their home parish closes that they simply stop going to church, so it certainly won’t solve the problem of smaller numbers of parishioners. As regards the declining number of priests, well it’s pretty obvious that simply closing churches isn’t going to increase the ranks: priests are going to continue to die as they age and new ones aren’t coming forward to replace them.

Closing St. Irenaeus Ignores Main Issues

So, as far as I’m concerned, the Church needs to address two issues by changing the course of its operations: (1) start ordaining married persons, and allow women to become priests! (2) Get rid of the emphasis on all the “do nots” as regards Church teachings, and put greater promotion on the teachings of Christ as regards goodness, kindness, and justice. I think Pope Francis would like to move forward on both of those matters, but the antiquated curia that he has to work with keeps blocking his way!

It seems to me that Catholic hierarchy, by and large, fail to understand that God’s holy creation is a progressive process: creation itself is ever-changing, and if what has been created by God is in constant change, then so must be the attitudes of those who dwell in this holy creation, especially those who have assumed a role of spiritual leadership. To hold on to thoughts and principles that no longer have meaning is to neglect what God constantly is giving to us through the progressive dynamic that God has put in place in holy creation. Not quite sure why Church leaders don’t understand that.

I guess what I’m saying is, closing parishes does nothing to solve the problems facing the Catholic Church today; it is — as much as I hate to use a cliche — “just kicking the can down the road!”

John Ostenburg served 20 years as Mayor of Park Forest and is a long-time parishioner at St. Irenaeus.

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