This is the latest in a series of columns about On Mission for The Church Alive!
“Look to the big picture and understand that everything we do, and are preparing to do, will not only benefit us, but will benefit generations to come. Be open, be able to listen and you will begin to see the community that you wish to become: stronger, vibrant and one that can offer more ministries and opportunities to grow.”
Those words may seem like they come from Bishop David Zubik, or any of us who have been involved in the preparations for On Mission for The Church Alive! over three-plus years. Actually, they are a quotation from a story written by David Elliot, who serves in the Office of Pastoral Planning for the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut. Elliot’s piece, “Sentimentality only gets you so far,” was published as part of that archdiocese’s communications for their own change process, called “Stewards for Tomorrow.”
Like our own diocese, Hartford had to face the challenges of declining numbers of people and priests, limited resources and shrinking finances. The reconfiguration of parishes brings apprehension, even though most agree that something has to change. It is no secret that our priests, who are meeting throughout the summer with the staffs and parishioners of the parishes in their future groupings, understand the feeling of apprehension.
When Elliot interviewed Hartford priests about the challenges of bringing parishes together, one of them told him, “The real challenge was the history of the churches. There were some hard feelings about one (parish) feeling second class, but it was my job to try to help people understand that coming together would help us all.” This same priest continued, “In the public eye, you get talk of the diminishment of religion in public life, growing secularism and people not attending Mass, but when you get the right combination of people, it gets reversed.”
That should bring us great hope. It perfectly expresses our desire to bring about renewal through On Mission for The Church Alive! The goal we must always hold in front of us is to create something stronger than what we have now, to make every parish a place where there is no second class, where all can shine. Forming larger communities can make some people feel left out or abandoned because they fear that a larger parish will be cold or impersonal.
As another Hartford priest said in his interview, “Realize that everything we do is not for the sake of our little communities, but for the sake of the future.”
Because we are people for whom symbols hold such importance, our parishes and the churches of our parishes are tremendously important to us. These sacred spaces hold treasured memories of our loved ones, of celebrations that marked milestones, of encounters with God through the sacraments, and other times when we experienced God’s comfort and consolation.
Such relationships and encounters aren’t limited to any building or community of people. What will help us to create and embrace new experiences? That’s an important question that many Catholics are already asking.
The Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, is another place where parish life is being examined and restructured to fit changing conditions and shifting resources. When I spoke with the deacon who directs that Office of Pastoral Planning, he explained that an initial proposal to combine 88 rural parishes was not received favorably. Many of those parishes, the deacon said, had just 200 to 300 active parishioners, but were crucial hubs of life in their small towns, which are under wider threat from economic and cultural forces.
The people of those small communities, Catholic and otherwise, feared what would happen if the parish were to disappear. The priests in those rural regions already care for multiple far-flung parishes and are severely stressed by the effort to do so faithfully and well. The future must be faced, but the people have raised legitimate concerns. So leaders in that strategic initiative are re-evaluating the best way to approach ministry in rural areas, just as our own On Mission drafts and proposals were re-evaluated and changed many times.
We are not alone. Across the country other dioceses are facing and have faced similar concerns. We can’t turn away from the real challenges if we want to be able to meet the future.
Keep looking up. Keep the big picture in front of you.
Father Esposito is episcopal vicar for On Mission for The Church Alive! For more about On Mission, go to www.diopitt.org/onmission.