Priests prepare for big changes

Saturday, February 11, 2017 - Updated: 7:00 am
By Bob De Witt Correspondent

As priests prepare for a major transformation of local parishes, they are taking part in an effort to develop new leadership skills. Recently, 150 of them gathered to learn, reflect on and pray about the challenges and opportunities ahead.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh has begun a Priests Collaborative in preparation for the renewal that the On Mission for The Church Alive! planning process is intended to inspire. The goals of the collaborative are to build strong leadership teams, encourage priests to embrace a style of leadership suited to their personal strengths, and introduce the most effective approaches and practices of the new evangelization.

“We’re called to be servant leaders in this new era of the Church of Pittsburgh,” said Father Chris Donley, administrator of St. Raphael Parish in Pittsburgh’s Morningside/Stanton Heights/Upper Lawrenceville neighborhoods.

“I’m very excited about this collaborative,” said Father David Bonnar, pastor of St. Bernard Parish in Mount Lebanon. “We all know that change is on the horizon, but it’s also an opportunity for us to be changed. Our priesthood, ministries and communities will be unified.”

Father Joseph Mele, episcopal vicar for leadership development and evangelization, organized the collaborative with Dr. Michel Therrien, director of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership. They hope to support priests who will serve in larger, multi-campus parishes, strengthening ministry teams in order to build vibrant faith communities and encouraging parishioners to become missionary disciples.

“Not only does a pastor have to find the right people to make up his team but help everyone get in touch with their gifts,” Father Mele said. “If we’re going to be missionary, it needs to flow from a deep sense of personal identity in Christ.”

Catholic pastoral leadership requires careful listening, and building networks within parishes and beyond to create social, cultural and systemic change. The collaborative is designed to help priests recognize their strengths, as well as areas in which they can grow.

“We’re looking at it from a different perspective,” said Father Bob Vular, pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Perrysville. “We all have talents within us that we need to bring out.”

The challenges of the proposed parish models will require both clergy and lay leaders who combine a broad knowledge of ministry with their individual skills, and bear witness to what it means to be a friend of Jesus.

“I was impressed by the number of priests who were there,” said Father John Lendvai, administrator of Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament and St. Joseph parishes in Natrona Heights. “The interest is there, and the men are willing to be open to what’s ahead.”

The first session covered the biblical context of salvation history, the cultural context of our society, the ecclesial context of Vatican II and Pope Francis’ call for Catholics to be missionary disciples who spread the Gospel.

The second day was dedicated to grounding the mission in a personal relationship with Jesus.

Future topics include strengths-based leadership, evangelization and The Church Alive!, leadership and parish vibrancy, shared leadership and building team cohesion.

One of the first fruits of the collaborative is bringing priests together to support one another.

“Many of our priests are going through the same emotions as their parishioners — uncertainty of the future,” Father Mele said. “It’s important to be mindful of them. Priests are walking the walk with us.”

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