The closure of a pilgrimage centre at a Marian shrine in Scotland is a sad but seemingly inevitable sign of the times.
More than 5,000 people have signed a petition objecting to plans to close the centre at Carfin Grotto, North Lanarkshire, along with its gift shop and café.
The reaction has prompted a personal response from Bishop Joseph Toal of Motherwell, who explained at length why he believed he had no choice but to close the centre at the national shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes from September 30, with consequent redundancies.
It simply comes down to numbers, he said. So few people were now visiting the shrine, built by hand in 1922, that the centre was no longer economically viable.
The Diocese of Motherwell generates an annual income of £11 million and already spends it all, meaning that it can no longer subsidise the centre, which was opened in 1996, or find the cash for necessary improvements.
Pilgrims to the shrine will in future be offered hospitality by St Francis Xavier’s Church, the nearby parish.
Bishop Toal said the centre was run as a limited company with its own board of directors and the intention was always that it would not only be self-sufficient but also generate enough income to invest in maintenance and improvements.
“It has not succeeded in doing this for many years, and has instead depended on loans from the diocese, and support from the parish, to continue trading,” he said.
“It is a business that is not making money, shows no signs of doing so and costs the diocese a substantial amount of money.”
Bishop Toal continued: “The ultimate difficulty for the centre is that not enough people visit the grotto. Far more pilgrims would be needed to maintain the present business and improve the facilities. It does not seem likely that more people will come to the grotto, even though it is a beautiful oasis of prayer and tranquillity.
“This summer only 20 of the parishes in our diocese have arranged a parish day at the grotto. That is a third of the parishes and is sadly indicative of the decline in numbers.
“If the support is not there from the local community it is unlikely that visitors from further afield will compensate for this.”
Catholics throughout Britain ought to heed the lesson of this tragic episode. The patrimony of the Church can no longer be taken for granted. If Catholics don’t use it, they are going to lose it.