So often these days we read of the ongoing collapse of Catholicism in the west. In diocese after diocese we see parishes and schools closing or consolidating, a decline in priests as older clergy pass away at rates higher than new ordinations, and a widespread loss of the next generation to either the secular left or the evangelical right.
We also read of various plans to counter these trends. Everyone seems to have a program to promote, a new strategy to increase vocations, to increase weekly Mass attendance, to keep teens from fleeing the faith…
However, what’s not as widely known is that we already have a blueprint for success: the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. The problem is that few are talking about it. So let’s fix that.
First, a few facts you might not know about the Diocese of Lincoln:
According to the Official Catholic Directory and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Lincoln, NE is the only diocese in the United States to place in the Top 20 for the ratio of ordinands to population in every survey conducted from 1993-2012.
Despite having a Catholic population of only 97,000, the Lincoln diocese ordained 22 men from 2010-2012. Only seven diocese in the entire country ordained more. One of those, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (with a Catholic population over 4.2 million) ordained 34 men during those same three years. In other words, L.A. only ordained four more men per year on average despite having a population 44X greater than Lincoln.
Bishop James Conley recently noted that, with this year’s class, the diocese will have ordained 17 men to the priesthood in a 24 month span of time; unheard of in this day and age.
As of 2012 the diocese had a total of 150 priests serving 134 parishes.
There is no permanent diaconate program in Lincoln. There are, however, installed acolytes and lectors constituted of lay men.
There are also 33 Catholic schools, including 6 high schools. One of those high schools, St. Pius X, produced 18 of the 48 men enrolled at St. Gregory the Great Seminary in 2014.
It’s also interesting to note that 96 percent of students attending diocesan schools are Catholic.
Many of the schools are staffed by female religious, of which the Diocese of Lincoln boasts 141 sisters from 14 different orders. Many have priests teaching high school theology and often serving as principals as well.
Having established that Lincoln is a thriving community of Catholicism, seemingly impervious to many of the challenges encountered elsewhere, we now need to look at the secret of their success.
The Lincoln blueprint can be narrowed down to a few foundational elements:
Against all odds and the prevailing winds of the post-conciliar Church, Lincoln has avoided the craziness and irreverence that has afflicted so many other dioceses. This has largely been achieved through the stability and orthodoxy provided over the last fifty years by three men: Bishop Glennon Flavin (1967-1992), Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz (1992-2012), and Bishop James Conley (2012-present). They succeeded despite the occasional scorn of their brother bishops, and by making the Church’s perennial priorities their own.
The National Catholic Reporter (known as the Fishwrap to Fr. Z readers) once bemoaned that it was as if the “reforms” so prevalent in the aftermath of Vatican II had missed Lincoln altogether. Exactly.
The Male Only Sanctuary
Several things immediately differentiate Lincoln from nearly every other diocese in the country when it comes to the sacred liturgy.
To a large extent, Lincoln has preserved a male only sanctuary. In this area the diocese has simply given more weight to tradition and common sense instead of “modern sensibilities” that are more secular minded.
The diocese remains the only one in the country to maintain an altar serving policy of boys only. As I have written about before, this is in direct recognition of what Rome itself acknowledged back in 1994:
The Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.
Lincoln also utilizes installed acolytes and lectors for the Holy Mass. Since it is an instituted ministry, the role of an acolyte is only open to men. Both of these instituted ministries commenced during Bishop Flavin’s time during the 1970’s.
As an example, a parish with 1,200 or so families could have as many as 30-40 acolytes. They function mainly in a capacity to serve during Mass, often much like an altar boy or deacon: they turn the missal pages for the priest, carry the processional cross, distribute communion, handle the thurifer for incensing, and so on.
These acolytes are utilized on an as needed basis and are not viewed as simply another way to increase lay participation. An average Sunday mass with 800 people would typically have only 2 main acolytes and 3 more assist the extra priest to distribute Holy Communion. It’s also interesting to note that the faithful only receive under one species in Lincoln, foregoing the need to double the number of acolytes. This is of course in stark contrast to most dioceses that make ordinary use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, to the point of abusing the intention set forth by Rome.
As stated previously, Lincoln also utilizes installed lectors for most Sunday Masses. Back in the early 1980’s Bishop Rembert Weakland (the progressive homosexual prelate of Milwaukee at the time) publicly chastised Bishop Flavin of Lincoln for not embracing the innovation of female readers for Mass. While Flavin’s successor Bishop Bruskewitz would eventually acquiesce and permit their use in the diocese, female readers are still more commonly utilized for daily masses and school masses, with lectors more prevalent for Sunday’s and holy days of obligation.
Those in Lincoln will speak of the lack of Catholic tribalism and the absence of the liturgical wars so prevalent in other dioceses. In large part this is due to the environment established by Lincoln’s bishops. Reverent Novus Ordo liturgies have served the faithful well, preventing the frustration that so many encounter in other dioceses.
However, Lincoln has also avoided the hostility toward tradition that so often defines the traditionalists experience elsewhere. Back in the 1990’s then Bishop Bruskewitz invited the newly established Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP) to the diocese to establish a North American seminary, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Denton, NE. The Fraternity exclusively celebrates Mass in the Extraordinary Form and adheres to the liturgical books in use in 1962.
Presently there are about 7 or so diocesan priests who offer the Traditional Latin Mass; however, more are learning it. The rector at the diocesan seminary (St. Gregory the Great) offers it to the seminarians once a month.
This is probably one of the more interesting sides of Lincoln. The Latin Mass community is not very large in Lincoln. Because the diocese has historically been so conservative there has never been a great battle cry from traditionalists for the exclusive return of the Latin Mass. Many within the community can even be seen at various Novus Ordo parishes participating fully within the liturgy .
The number of priests learning the old Mass is on the rise, though mainly among the younger priests (of which there are many). Most of the older priests will delegate it to the FSSP priests in the diocese at the seminary or to St. Francis’ parish. Bishops Bruskewitz, Conley and Robert Finn (formerly of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph) all offer it regularly in the diocese.
Lincoln’s diocesan priests and the FSSP priests have an excellent relationship, and it is only getting better. St. Gregory the Great diocesan seminarians have gone to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and vice versa, for evenings of prayer and fraternity and for vespers in both the old and new rites.
As stated previously, the Lincoln diocese has intentionally avoided the modern tendency to clericalize the laity by delegating liturgical roles to the faithful. Thanks to its use of acolytes and lectors, instead of the more common excessive use of readers and EMHC’s, the diocese has not blurred the lines between ministers and laity, or between sanctuary and nave. It’s obvious to see how this would reinforce the ministerial priesthood in Lincoln, as well as the continuity between both forms of the Roman Rite.
Proper liturgical orientation has been further reinforced through the manner in which many masses are offered in Lincoln: with the priest facing toward the liturgical east, or Ad Orientem.
As I have written about before, the last two years Bishop Conley has offered all Sunday masses Ad Orientem during Advent. Further, he has publicly encouraged the priests of his diocese to do the same. From what I have been told, about 40% of parishes chose to follow his lead. For many, however, this was not anything new, as most large diocesan masses are already being offered Ad Orientem.
A Catholic Education
While I have saved this for last, in many ways education is the primary ingredient to Lincoln’s recipe for success. Bishop Glennon Flavin’s vision for a diocese that allowed its children to go to Catholic school at an affordable cost and to be taught authentic Catholicism by religious sisters and priests is integral to the diocesan mission.
While Lincoln’s Catholic population is less than 100,000, they have provided the faithful with 27 elementary schools and 6 high schools to educate the next generation. More importantly, most diocesan schools have at least 1-2 habited sisters and all Catholic schools are staffed by at least one priest.
As noted earlier, high school theology classes are only taught by priests and religious sisters. For example, the Catholic high school in Lincoln, Pius X, has over 1200 students and is staffed by 4 religious sisters (in traditional religious habits) and 15 priests who always wear their clerics. Each newly ordained priest can expect to teach high school for at least 5 years. Priests who are assigned to parishes in smaller towns with a Catholic high school are still expected to teach as well.
Unlike other dioceses which require school masses only once a week, or in some cases once a month, each grade school in the Diocese of Lincoln is required to offer daily mass for the entire school each day.
However, there may be no better example of Lincoln’s commitment to the future than the fact that it’s diocesan schools have some of the lowest tuition costs in the entire country. As an example, St. Teresa’s Catholic School in town has an annual tuition cost of only $100 per student, and yet it is a thriving school with a habited sister as principal.
As one local explained, “These good, solid, Catholic schools are the roots of the diocese and continue to pump out religious vocations and plain good Catholics, thanks to the work of our clergy, diocesan staff, and laity.”
Why Aren’t Other Dioceses Looking to Lincoln?
Why more dioceses aren’t looking to incorporate the Lincoln model is a mystery. It is easy to see how some might dismiss it, however.
Lincoln is a rural diocese. It’s exceptionally high number of religious sisters help to reduce tuition costs for schools. The relatively small size of the Catholic population creates an insulated environment unlike that found in such diverse and populous areas as Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York.
Of course there may be other reasons why the Lincoln blueprint is apparently being ignored.
No doubt many bishops, priests, and lay faithful would rather forgo a boom in vocations if it means having to reestablish clear divisions between the nave and the sanctuary, or ending such post-conciliar innovations as altar girls or Extraordinary Ministers. The secular push for egalitarianism has been enthusiastically embraced by most bishops these past few decades. It would seem that either pride, or fear, or an agenda that is not exclusively focused on saving souls, is keeping many from reversing course. Or maybe some dioceses simply don’t want orthodox Catholicism.
We can only hope and pray that more of those within the Church hierarchy humbly and attentively look to Lincoln for some answers. There is a blueprint for rebuilding a vibrant Church, an authentic and thriving Catholicism.
Look to Lincoln.
(I would like to thank Tanner Lockhorn of Lincoln, NE for his assistance and significant contribution to this post. Tanner is a life long resident of Lincoln and a graduate of St. Pius X High School).
Brian Williams is a convert who entered the Catholic Church in 2006. He is a graduate of Long Beach State University with a BA in History. Brian blogs on life, liturgy and the pursuit of holiness at liturgyguy.com. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and five children.