Chicago Catholic parishes facing steep hardships during pandemic, but leaders remain hopeful

Karen Ann Cullotta, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Religious News

About 3 in 10 U.S. adults — 29% — “currently are religious ‘nones’ — people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or ‘nothing in particular’ when asked about their religious identity,” according to the report.

Although the pandemic appears to have exacerbated the languishing enthusiasm for organized religion, some experts say the Catholic church could potentially recapture those who have left, and even attract new followers.

“One thing the church needs to do is to tell a compelling narrative of what the church has to offer,” said William Cavanaugh, a professor of Catholic studies and director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University.

“The pandemic calls out for the best in the Christian tradition ... we’re wearing masks not just out of fear of getting sick, but because it’s for the common good and the principle of solidarity,” Cavanaugh said.

Rising numbers of those suffering from mental health issues during the pandemic, and an overall growing sense of malaise and weariness in society also underscores the increasingly important role the church can play during the pandemic, Cavanaugh said.

“We’re all spending so much time in front of screens, so it can be a real joy going back to church, not out of obligation, but for everything the church has to offer,” Cavanaugh said.“It’s not just the socialization, but this deep sense of incarnation the church offers.”

The pandemic has also upended the rituals for seminarians at Mundelein Seminary/University of Saint Mary of the Lake, said the Rev. John Kartje, rector and president.

“For those who were newly ordained during the pandemic, their ordination Mass was attended by around 20 to 30 people, in a largely empty church, when usually, there are these great, joyous ordinations in the cathedral, ” Kartje said.

While the church was facing dwindling numbers of those seeking vocations decades before the arrival of the pandemic, Kartje said he is hopeful that this difficult yet contemplative moment in time might be a turning point.


“The Holy Spirit never goes away,” Kartje said.

‘Everything at work is online, and they’ve never really met one person’

Back at St. Clement in Lincoln Park, Wojcik, the pastor known as “Father Pete,” also remains hopeful that the dark days of the pandemic will be replaced with light ― and a return to Mass — in the new year.

Enrollment at the parish school continues to soar, and is nearly at capacity. And despite the hurdles inherent to the pandemic, Wojcik said the church has welcomed 500 new families.

Wojcik said he is also looking forward to the warmer weather, when he hopes to resume popular programs such as Wind Down Wednesdays, which last summer attracted about 500 young adults each week to a social gathering in the church courtyard.

“There’s a real lack of community for many people working remotely in the city right now, especially those who are right out of college,” Wojcik said. “I’ve talked to young people who have told me they moved to Chicago, and started their new jobs during the pandemic but everything at work is online, and they’ve never really met one person.

“People are struggling, and they’re seeking, and that’s where our opportunity is — to create a meaningful church community that transforms lives.”

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