This is the latest in a series of columns about On Mission for The Church Alive!
We know that the Third Commandment prohibits work on Sundays. I remember a time when no store was open on Sunday, the exception being the neighborhood bakery. Sundays were a time for family visits, dinners and some kind of recreation, whether that was going to the movies, some outdoor activity like a picnic and a game of bocce, or sitting around the table playing cards.
Of course, the first and most important activity on Sunday was Mass. In our family no one would think of missing. My grandparents went to the 8 a.m. Mass with most of their contemporaries, including those who wanted to hear a sermon preached in Italian. I was always at the 9:30, which was for the children of the parish school. My two youngest aunts who were 10 and 14 years older than I was, went to the 10:45, the choir Mass, probably because they were out Saturday nights. Churches were full and life was different.
As we prepare for the new interim Mass schedules, we know that in some groupings the number of Masses available on the weekend will be reduced, sometimes by more than five, six or even seven Masses. The goal once again is to have full churches so our singing and praying can be more robust. The goal is to have a full complement of liturgical ministers so that all the baptized participate as fully as possible.
It is evident from a trickle of letters, e-mails and other messages that some people are upset because Mass times will change and priests will move. They insist that these aspects of On Mission were never disclosed. But every priest and deacon had the opportunity over more than two years to speak about what needed to happen to begin rebuilding our structure and habits so that our faith might continue to flourish.
Some clergy used every opportunity to share information. Some did not. Bishop David Zubik indicated that there would be changes in assignments for many of the clergy, and the original draft models presented to all parishioners in late 2016 showed the probable numbers of Masses for a grouping of parishes working together.
We know that Sunday Mass is when the most people show up in a typical parish. So we need to shift our attitudes a bit and ask how we make the most of that opportunity.
One way is to have more parish staff members present to assist people with their questions and concerns. Music ministers, catechetical ministers, youth ministers and perhaps a few others are already around Sundays because that is when their ministry happens. But what about having some support staff available for the people who cannot get to the parish office any other time? Would it be possible to set up a space where people could request baptismal certificates, ask for a Mass intention, or make an appointment with a priest or another staff person? That’s a new way of thinking for some of us.
If the religious formation of children takes place on Sundays, can some adjoining space be found to gather parents for informal catechetical conversation? Is there an opportunity for some social time to meet new people and begin to make connections?
During the first year in our new parish groupings, Bishop Zubik has asked us to focus on building relationships. That will present challenges as people experience a variety of emotions from sadness to excitement, frustration to anger. We all struggle with change, and none of us is perfect. We need to seek ways to help one another through.
The religious sisters in our diocese are praying for us and have graciously offered to provide various kinds of support, from grief sessions to prayer experiences. These will allow people to express these emotions, but to do so in ways that honor God. We are being called to patience and charity as we undertake this endeavor throughout all six counties of our diocese.
The days when I was a child and churches were full are in the past. Changes that seem drastic to some are because we are trying to rebuild after drastic change has already taken place. It’s natural to feel pain when we think about losing patterns and habits that have been a comfort for many years.
Some people are so hurt that they say, “Well, if this is what is to be, my contributions to the parish will lessen.” But that attitude only makes it more difficult to achieve the goal of our changes, namely to make our parishes flourish with new ministry.
Don’t let your vision be myopic. Our faith and our ministry is always about more than any single parish or any single priest. We profess to be a church that is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The question we must all ask, as we face difficult changes and decisions, is how to best serve Jesus in our parishes and communities.
Keep looking up. Make a decision to keep your heart and spirit open as we move forward.
Father Esposito is episcopal vicar for On Mission for The Church Alive! For more about On Mission, go to www.diopitt.org/onmission.