Saturday, February 11, 2012

Toronto Catholic archdiocese a multi-million organization in transition

Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins doesn’t like being called the archdiocese’s CEO. It has too much of a corporate ring for a man who sees himself as a simple evangelist.

But administering to spiritual needs in Canada’s biggest Roman Catholic jurisdiction includes managing a multi-million dollar organization in transition. Salvation may be the ultimate goal, but aging bricks and mortar, strained human resources and changing demographics also require daily attention.

Downtown Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral, for instance, is an unquestionably beautiful place to unburden the soul. But it’s not so good at providing physical relief.

“We now have only one washroom in the whole church,” Collins says. A $23 million renovation includes making room for more bathrooms.

The archdiocese spent an estimated $80 million renovating and restoring churches in the last five years. That’s part of the story. There are also the waves of immigration and demographic shifts, as revealed by an ongoing review of the archdiocese’s demographics.

Headed by Most Rev. William McGrattan, one of the archdiocese’s auxiliary bishops, the review looks at population flows and church attendance to determine service levels.

The archdiocese has 225 churches spread across 13,000 square kilometres, stretching from Lake Ontario north to Georgian Bay. Masses are conducted in 37 languages. It also fully or partially funds more than 40 social service agencies.

The archdiocese’s defining story — at least in the GTA — is the dominent impact of immigration, starting with tens of thousands of Irish migrants driven to Toronto by famine in the mid-1800s. Successive waves have kept the number of Catholics living in its spiritual jurisdiction consistently growing. There are now 1.8 million.

Toronto’s churches have reflected these waves. Our Lady of Mount Carmel, on St. Patrick St., initially served worshippers of Irish origin. Then came Italians, Koreans and now Chinese.

Rev. Brian Clough, pastor of Leaside’s St. Anselm’s Parish, describes immigration as a “huge sea change” for the church. Parishioners bring religious traditions that don’t always conform to liturgy. And different cultural practices, like arranged marriages, raise new issues for priests to handle.

Language is an obvious challenge, in more ways than one. Clough’s parish includes Catholics of Indonesian origin. But while parents attend services in Indonesian, their children prefer English.

“There’s a huge generational gap,” says Glough, 69, adding there were 600,000 Catholics in the diocese when he was ordained in 1968.

The influx has largely saved Toronto from the decline that Catholic diocese have seen across North America. Edmonton, for instance, has closed half of the 200 churches it once had. In London, 30 per cent of churches have been closed or “twinned” — brought under the responsibility of one priest due to declining attendance.

Toronto has instead built 13 churches in the last decade. A 14th is under construction in Barrie. In 2010, the archdiocese spent $34.4 million to build new churches, renovate existing ones and purchase land for future parishes.

The growth is in the suburbs or wider GTA. In Markham, two parishes serving Catholics of Chinese origin are baptizing more than 600 adults a year, all of them converts, McGrattan says. A new church will soon need to be built.

Parish expenses are paid from collections during mass, which last year totalled $72.5 million. Some of that money pays for new buildings. The archdiocese gets no funding from the Vatican.

The only church closed in the last decade — St. Catharine of Siena — was on Danforth Ave. (It’s now used by Sisters of Life, a religious order dedicated to helping pregnant women.)

Its fate points to a different story in the old city of Toronto, where average attendance for Sunday mass is down to 50 per cent of seating capacity.

“At face value people would say that we need to close the parishes,” McGrattan says, “that the buildings are becoming somewhat of a — not a burden — but a heavy responsibility that maybe a smaller, dwindling population might not be able to handle.”

But McGrattan’s review found that former parishioners who fled to the suburbs remain attached to the Toronto churches they originally attended. That’s where they want their children to be baptized or married.

“The sacramental demands and celebrations that are happening on weekends are showing me that there’s still a vibrancy to these parishes,” McGrattan says in an interview at the archdiocese’s offices on Yonge St.

Gentrification and the downtown condo boom are also bringing people back to the city core. So the archdiocese is holding off on closing churches. It’s considering reducing the number of daily masses, freeing up priests and volunteers for outreach.

The movement of Catholics of Italian origin from Toronto to Woodbridge resulted in the “twinning” of two parishes — St. Clare and St. Nicholas of Bari — in the St. Clair and Dufferin area. But even here the archdiocese is reluctant to close one because of a small but growing number of Eritrean and Ethiopian Catholics attending.

While conducting the review, McGrattan was surprised to find that, “The biggest pastoral issue for some of the parishes downtown is parking.”

Sunday lifestyles have changed. Where once most worshippers attended noontime or morning masses, afternoon services are becoming more popular. Parking bylaws, however, continue to allow parking during morning church hours, but not afternoons.

The parking fines have parishioners in an uproar at St. Agnes’, on Grace St., and St. John the Baptist, on Dundas St. W. The priests do what they can to get the tickets waived, McGrattan suggests.

“I’ve been to parishes where they have said, ‘If you’ve got a parking ticket, just come and see me,’” he says.

Immigration also helps the archdiocese find much-needed priests. About half of the 386 diocesan priests serving parishes have come from abroad. (Another 450 priests in the archdiocese belong to religious orders, such as Jesuit or Basilian. They teach, do outreach and run roughly a quarter of the parishes.)

Collins has made a priority of getting more local recruits. On average, four or five priests graduate yearly from Toronto seminaries (although this year there will only be three). It’s a pressing matter because baby boomers approaching retirement form the biggest group of priests in the archdiocese.

“We are short of replacing them,” says Rev. Hansoo Park, the archdiocese’s vocational director.

One reason is that parents with only one or two children are reluctant to see a son embrace a vocation where grandchildren are out of the question. Rev. Stephen Hero, who was vocational director in Edmonton when Collins was the archbishop there, estimates that allowing priests to marry would increase the number of recruits by one third.

Collins, a staunch protector of church orthodoxy, opposes the idea. Priestly celibacy, he argues, has its roots in the example of Jesus Christ.

“I think it’s not essential to the priesthood, and there are wonderful married priests and I totally support that, for example, in the Eastern churches and the Anglican church,” he says in an interview. “But if I were asked, ‘Should we change this?’ I would say no.”

Park, 35, believes the lack of priests reflects a more general malaise.

“There’s an old saying, if there is a crisis in vocations it starts with a crisis in faith,” he says.

Park, who often gives talks in Catholic schools, says Collins has put a lot of resources into youth outreach.

“He’s not just trying to get guys into the priesthood,” Park says. “He wants young people to understand their faith, to love it, to enter more deeply into it, and to be able to hear what God is saying to them.”

In the end, that’s where the archbishop, who becomes a cardinal Feb. 18, puts his focus.

“Our mission is not to be administering things — there are people much more competent than us to do things like that,” Collins says. “The main thing we have to do is get out there and proclaim the Gospel. That’s what we’re here for.”

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