Greg Erlandson

How far would you drive for Mass?

I don’t know if anyone has ever done a study of such a pedestrian topic, but it is a question that will become increasingly relevant.

Once upon a time, driving farther than your local parish was simply a matter of choice. For example, when I was a child, my parents took strong exception to our curmudgeonly pastor.

As kids, we had no idea why so many Sundays were an adventure: We would pack into our VW bus and go anywhere but our home parish: from Our Lady of Malibu to Corpus Christi to St. Monica’s. It was a great opportunity to see the diversity of worship spaces, even in the one, holy and Catholic Church. Only years later did I find out the reason for our road trips.

As a parent myself, I fall in the camp of “stick to the parish in whose boundaries you reside.”

I know many people decide otherwise, choosing to find a parish that satisfies their taste in music or homilies or even language. To which I respond: Who am I to judge? But if being Catholic means “here comes everybody” (to quote James Joyce), then all the messy diversity of “everybody” is to be found in my parish.

In the future, however, driving long distances for Mass may not be optional when the number of priests available are not enough to staff all the parishes and all the Masses to which people are accustomed.

Some Catholics in rural areas are already experiencing this shortage, as are folks in the military. There are dioceses now that have almost the same number of priests as parishes. When one gets sick or dies, it isn’t just an inconvenience, it means people may go without.

As our priestly population ages and populations shift, this will only get more dramatic. Dioceses like Pittsburgh are already facing this reality, going from 188 parishes to 57. Other dioceses are consolidating priests so that three may serve five parishes or four serve six.

We laity have been pretty spoiled, to tell the truth, believing that whatever our schedule or inclination, the church will be available to us. For too many years, we’ve treated parishes as the spiritual equivalent of service stations. We pull in at our convenience. We get the Mass time, the music, the liturgy, even the language we want, and then we sail off into the work week.

In many of our dioceses in the not too distant future, we may soon resemble much of the rest of the world. Masses may take place in shifting locations and larger venues. It may not be a 10-minute drive and a one-hour Mass. It may mean a time commitment we readily accept for travel soccer or 18 holes of golf.

How far would you drive to receive the Eucharist, go to confession, baptize your child? Would you go 30 miles away? Would you go to the next county? Would you do the readings with your family on those weeks when no Mass may be available?

I’ve heard stories already of parishioners shouting at parish staff because they can’t get the funeral date they want or the wedding time they want. A priest simply isn’t available. How many people will simply wander away, not a “none,” but a “not worth the bother”?

Some dioceses are already calculating the sliding scale: Closing parishes to save money means X number of Catholics will simply stop going, which means a further drop in revenue.

The calculation we laity may have to make is how far we will drive for the Eucharist.

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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at gerlandson@catholicnews.com.