My left foot

Friday 24 November 2017 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — National Day of Listening 

Long ago, I injured my big toe. I dropped a cast iron garden planter on my left foot. The toe hurt a bit but I kept calm and carried on. You know me, dear readers.

In the middle of the night, my big toe woke me. It was now swollen and very painful. I drove to the emergency room and hobbled over to the nice nurse behind the desk. She asked me questions then kindly invited me to take a seat with assurances that the doctor would look at my left foot as soon as possible. 

There were several patients needing more immediate medical attention that night. I waited a long time. Finally, my turn came. “I broke my toe,” I self-diagnosed. “Let me see,” said the doctor. “Yes, you did. Keep it elevated and take two aspirins. Next patient!” 

After a long night in the emergency room, I drove back to the rectory a bit disappointed. Is that all there is to breaking a toe?

This emergency room process is called “triage.” Triage saves many more lives than just taking a number and waiting your turn (as one might do at the Registry of Motor Vehicles). Few people have ever died of a broken toe.

Using triage procedures, someone with appropriate medical qualifications assesses the immediate situation. Is the patient in critical need of advanced life support? Would such extraordinary means ultimately benefit the patient or not? Is, instead, the patient in serious condition requiring immediate and intensive medical care? Or maybe the patient is not at risk at all and can wait while the more urgent issues of other patients are addressed. In my case, I had only to go home and take two pills. 

Medical treatment these days can involve a plethora of options and procedures. In more serious cases, this might include a bevy of experts in various medical fields. Years ago, I knew a young boy who had a brain tumor. He was operated on by a team of 10 surgeons headed by one who specialized only in left frontal lobe tumors in children under eight years of age. Talk about specialization! The boy, by the way, is now in his 40s and perfectly healthy. He’s my nephew. 

In the Diocese of Fall River, we have been monitoring the vital signs of our parishes for decades. There have been surveys taken, statistical trends noted, and records carefully studied. There have been countless meetings. The purpose of all this was to get the facts, listen to opinions, and evaluate circumstances. 

No one can say the examination was half-hearted, but the discussions and studies cannot go on ad infinitum. At some point, decisions must be made and appropriate actions taken. As in medicine, the overall goal is patient wellness (in this case, not patients’ but parishes’).

What is a parish’s Spiritual, physical, and financial health? What parishes have flat-lined Spiritually? What buildings are literally collapsing? What parishes are in critical financial condition?

What parishes are in robust health? What parishes will be just fine after a couple of aspirins? What parishes need less intensive but still necessary healthcare? What parishes require critical care? What parishes need to be placed on life-support (or not)?

Whatever the parish health indicators may be, an underlying question is: “Why?” Besides the present and the future, attention is due to past history. What situations previously encountered or actions taken (or not) may have contributed to the present condition? What can we learn from this moving forward? 

If no decisions are made and no actions taken, some patients (or parishes) could die in the waiting room. Not to decide is itself a decision.

When all is said and done, someone has to take decisive action. Tectonic pastoral decisions of this sort ultimately belong to every bishop of a diocese. But these days a bishop of a diocese rarely acts unilaterally. Consultation is key and, of course, cooperation on the part of all. The goal is the health and well-being of individual parishes. This, in turn, leads to the renewed vitality of the Diocesan Church as a whole. In the Catholic tradition, the local Church is not the parish church. The local Church is the Diocesan Church.

The operation of the Diocesan Church itself might need a wellness check. How can the diocese better serve the needs of its parishes? How can diocesan operations be more transparent, more streamlined, and more efficient? How can Catholics throughout the diocese more actively participate in diocesan operations? 

Based on national and local trends, some parishes might need to be suppressed, some of those perhaps remaining open as a kind of worship site. Some may require merger, functioning as two or more parishes while sharing a single staff. All would benefit from greater interparish collaboration.

How do we move beyond the walls of parochialism into more effective programs of ministry, service, and outreach? How do we together grow the Church in this time and place? 

Time will tell, I hope, sooner rather than later. 

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts