Catholicism matters, and so does its absence. In Western Massachusetts, Catholics helped make our shared history. Now shuttered parishes and empty schools leave neighborhoods a bit more impoverished. Worse, we learn that disgraced and criminal bishops and priests assaulted children and caused lifelong suffering for too many of our neighbors and friends. They left behind shattered communities, demoralized Christians, and children and grandchildren disenchanted with churches. That Catholic decline matters; we are all diminished, and rendered less hopeful, when Catholicism as we once knew it is no longer with us.

No one can defend the leaders of the Catholic Church of Western Massachusetts. One revered former Bishop, Christopher Weldon, was credibly accused of the violent sexual abuse of children. This startling news comes 16 years after another former Springfield Bishop, Thomas Dupre, was the first American bishop indicted for abuse of children. Both revelations came amid credible reports of abuse by many diocesan priests. Since the first news of clergy crimes against children came out of Louisiana in 1984, all four Massachusetts Catholic dioceses have been shaken by accounts of criminal sexual crimes by priests, blundering cover-ups by bishops and their enablers, and lifetimes of suffering of victims and their families.

Locally steps are now being taken to protect children. Full responsibility for handling reports of abuse has been turned over to the area's three District Attorneys. And yet another committee will try to improve church procedures for handling abuse. All of this while church attendance declines, Catholic pronouncements on sex sound hypocritical, and long-standing Catholic support for immigrants, working people and the poor is smothered by highly politicized, even cruel, pronouncements about abortion and homosexuality. Many younger Catholics no longer acknowledge a religious identity — former Catholics are now America's second-largest religious group — and the once awesome Catholic infrastructure of churches and schools, hospitals and social service agencies fades from the civic landscape.

Once the Catholic story in Pittsfield was liberation from poverty and service to the world. One of my first-generation uncles became a missionary in Korea; another ran the print shop at City Hall. Newcomers from many lands are making similar histories, but the story in the heads and hearts of older Catholics, especially in New England, is a "declension narrative." Decline is not just out there in headlines about corruption and churches turned into apartments but closer to home in anxieties about whether we Catholics have passed on the faith, hope and love that once empowered so many immigrants, and our families, to make their own history.

What is to be done? First of all, return to the basic Christian movement: Evangelicalism, that is reliance on scripture, invitations to personal conversion to Jesus and small-scale communities of shared faith, is the default drive for American Christians when once vibrant religious subcultures pass away. American religion is resilient. Older congregations shrink but new communities spring up in warehouses and storefronts, family living rooms and quickly built new churches.

In metropolitan Worcester, where I live, one finds lively faith in some older mainline parishes and in many new evangelical and Pentecostal congregations, in soup kitchens and prayer and bible study groups, and at Black Lives Matter rallies and other outpourings of civic engagement. In places like that, one finds plenty of people who still act like Jesus. An elderly Irish gentleman we met in Assisi once told us that his recently departed wife was "a better Christian than I, but not so good a Catholic." Many misguided American bishops used to say that about Nuns and Sisters who irritated them by quoting and living the Gospel. Like that Irish lady, they were pointing the way forward.

Second, go ecumenical and interfaith. Once we counted on Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy to stand behind the values of liberty and justice that make us one people. Councils of churches have been victims of declension but there are plenty of clergy, teachers and lay leaders out there, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and others, who can provide needed leadership for our struggling country. One inspiring invitation comes from the Rev. William Barber's "Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival." Discouraged Catholics should check it out.

And third, we Catholics could listen to our pope. He has yet to provide consistent leadership on sex abuse or responded to the cries for justice from women, but we have not done very well on those, either. What Pope Francis offers, and we need, is what the earliest Christians called a "way": encounters with our neighbors, especially outcasts and the poor, generous compassion in relieving suffering, hungering and thirsting for justice and skillful peacemaking amid polarizing conflicts, visionary desire for solidarity with others, all others, and hard-headed truthfulness about ourselves and the worlds we have created. Before the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis found American models in Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. the Trappist monk Thomas Merton and the visionary Catholic worker Dorothy Day. In the shattered remnants of organized Catholicism in Western Massachusetts are resources for renewal. Pandemic, nationalist power grabs and democratic political paralysis provide invitations, perhaps providential, to all of us, together, to look around and look ahead and begin once again to make a little history. What Catholics, and all of us, do still matters.

David O'Brien is professor emeritus of American history and Catholic studies at the College of the Holy Cross and a summer resident of Richmond.