One of the hardest concepts to explain to people who have never worked in a newsroom is why some events in a city are "news stories" in the eyes of most journalists and other events, that seem similar, are not. A suburban megachurch builds a massive family-life center and it isn't news. The same evangelical church builds a new parking lot that -- in the eyes of its neighbors -- clashes with zoning laws and the story goes straight to the front page. Meanwhile, the historic Episcopal parish in downtown decides to change a single window in its sanctuary (the original has been there since the facility was built, of course) and the story runs on A1 on a Sunday, with multiple photos.
Does it help that a key editor attends the Episcopal parish and, thus, knows about the historic window? Does it hurt that no one in the newsroom has ever walked through the doors of that 5,000-member megachurch? Probably.
Still, history matters. That old real-estate law -- location, location, location -- matters in journalism, as well.
I bring this up because of a recent Washington Post story about the closing of a Catholic parish here in The District.
Now, it is a sad fact of life that Catholic parishes (and churches of many other mainline stripes, as well) close all of the time. Sometimes they close in bunches, as Catholic leaders wrestle with the demographic principalities and powers of our age.
In this case, the Post is talking about the closing of a 153-year-old Jesuit parish, which means -- in DC Beltway terms -- that this is a parish that, no matter where it is located, it is part of the wider world of Georgetown University and of the progressive wing of local Catholic life.
Thus, this is news, while the closing of other local parishes may or may not be news. In this case, St. Aloysius Gonzaga will be merged into Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, which is only three blocks away.
Here is the crunch passage that, for the savvy reader, truly signals what is what.
The St. Aloysius building, which is owned by the Jesuits and is part of the Gonzaga College High School campus, will continue to be used by the school. Holy Redeemer will also use it for special services, weddings and funerals, parish officials said. The parish’s Father McKenna Center for homeless men will continue to operate.
But the eclectic congregation of about 250 households will cease to exist. Many who attended Sunday’s Mass hugged each other and dabbed at tears, saying the city has lost a parish heralded for cultural diversity, vibrant services and an unusually devoted service to the poor.
“We have White House staffers and people who are homeless worshiping in this church,” said Lynnly Tydings, of Takoma Park, who attended St. Aloysius for 21 years.
The parish, Tydings and others said, attracted many Catholics who felt uncomfortable elsewhere. About 90 percent of its parishioners came from other parts of the District and the suburbs, parish leaders said.
“This is a place where all of us who want to be Catholic can be, even if we don’t follow everything the church says we should be following,” Tydings said.
Of course, this parishioner commutes to this parish from Takoma Park, which is, among DC Beltway folks, known as "The Berkeley of the East" and "The People's Republic of Takoma Park." Of course, this parish-of-choice community is "eclectic" -- which has to be the funky adjective of the week in this context. When has this parish clashed with the archdiocese? What were the issues? Oh well, whatever, nevermind.
I, for one, wanted to know more about the status of the school itself. Why? Connect the dots on these facts:
Since 1965, the number of Catholic priests in the United States has dropped from about 58,600 to 39,000. The subsect of “religious priests,” which includes Jesuits and other religious orders, now numbers about 12,300, down from 22,700, according to the Center for Applied Research In the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
The Rev. Thomas Clifford, St. Aloysius’s pastor for the past six years, said he’s seen the number of Jesuits in the Mid-Atlantic region drop from about 750 priests and students to roughly 320 over his four decades in the priesthood. Nearly half are now older than 70, he said.
Wait a minute: Only 320 priests AND STUDENTS? Surely the word "students" was supposed to have been "seminarians."
But back to the issue of the Jesuit school attached to the Jesuit parish:
Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the Jesuits, said St. Aloysius was closed because it was the smallest parish in the Mid-Atlantic. Because the church building is part of the high school campus and attached to the Jesuit teachers’ residences, the diocese could not put a non-Jesuit priest there, she said.
So the church is attached to the housing unit for the Jesuit teachers. For me, this raises a rather basic question: Will there still be Jesuits in residence there, Jesuits who will continue to teach at the school? If so, why wouldn't those priests continue to serve the parish? There seems to be a missing number in this equation. Are the teachers who live at the school priests? Laypeople? A combination of the two?
As always, the ghost in the story is the issue of demographics. If this is a thriving, eclectic parish (the spiritual home of anonymous White House staffers!) with awesome, vibrant worship services, why is this the smallest Jesuit parish in the whole region? Is the school thriving? Is it running on endowment money, at this point, money that cannot be used to support the parish?
So many questions. Instead, on the issue of issues, readers are given this familiar deep bow to the logical of the demographically thriving (not) world of liberal mainline Protestantism (with no corresponding voice from an authoritative Catholic insider critical of this particular parish):
Several St. Aloysius parishioners said they felt abandoned by the Catholic Church. Teddi Ann Galligan, of the District, said she found it “heartbreaking and astonishing” that the parish where she’d been married and had two children baptized would close because of a shortage of priests.
If the Catholic Church allowed women and married people to be ordained, she said, “They’d never have to close a church for lack of a priest.”
Wait a minute. So the Jesuits of the American Northeast are not, as a flock, progressive enough? That's the source of the problems for this parish and many others?
So many questions, so little ink. So few voices involved in the discussion. But clearly, the closing of this eclectic, progressive parish is news in the Post newsroom. Readers should have little doubt why that is so.