Friday, December 07, 2018 - Updated: 3:16 pm
There is the ideal, and then there is the real. We strive to achieve the ideal, but when that is difficult or impossible, we have to settle for the real.
This is true in so many aspects of our life. It is decidedly true with regard to our parishes.
The ideal parish in the Catholic Church has one priest who pastors the faithful with the care and devotion of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. One priest, one parish. Over time, like the Good Shepherd, the pastor comes to know the members of the church and responds to their unique needs in his ministry. The parish should have enough members to support all essential ministries, but small enough for the priest to know everyone.
That’s the ideal. Reality is different.
Many of you, like me, can remember a time decades ago when the church expanded on the ideal. Because of the uncommon burst of priestly ordinations in the 1960s and ‘70s, many city parishes had three priests, not one. Newly ordained priests had to wait 15 to 18 years until they acquired enough seniority to become a pastor. Every parish organization seemed to have its own chaplain. The diocese was able to release priests for missionary work, teaching in seminaries and service in Vatican congregations. Ethnic groups had their own priest, of their own heritage and language.
We thought that pattern would go on forever. Reality set in.
Gradually parish membership shrank. In western Pennsylvania, the demise of the steel industry in the late 1970s and ‘80s caused the loss of 180,000 living-wage jobs. Men and women fled to sunnier climates to find work. Our diocese has dropped from a high of almost 1 million souls in 1960 to less than 650,000 today.
The ranks of the ordained shrank, too. Forty years ago there were 525 active priests. In 1990, maybe 275. Today we have under 180.
The diocese responded to these realities with the reorganization of parishes from 1989-95, when we went from 333 to 215 parishes. New parishes were formed with multiple “worship sites.”
But the decline in numbers has continued for a variety of reasons. On Mission for The Church Alive is our determined response to fewer faithful and priests. It affirms the valuable roles of deacons, lay ecclesial ministers and key volunteers in the parish groupings. It requires ongoing collaboration with neighboring parishes within groupings. It calls pastors to practice the discipline of delegating non-priestly work to staff and volunteers as much as possible. It places evangelization at the forefront of every parish’s activities.
Priests have to adapt to these new realities. No longer can a priest just walk across the parking lot from his rectory to say Mass. Today priests drive miles to the various churches in their grouping, and dozens of miles in our more rural counties. New priests have to pick up the peculiarities of the celebration of the Eucharist in each church: how to turn on the lights and turn off the alarm system, where chalices and liturgical books are kept in the sacristies, how to enter and depart, where the ministers stand and sit. Each congregation has to learn the names of their new priests when they might only see them for Sunday Mass once every four weeks.
For me the hardest reality of our current circumstance is learning names. When I was pastor of one parish with one church, it took me about a year to learn the names of the 300 or so most active parishioners. In subsequent years, as I celebrated the sacraments I could build on this foundation and learn the names of more and more families.
But serving multiple churches slows this process down. As I move from church to church and encounter parishioners, I’m constantly asking myself, “Which church does she attend? Which parish is his home?”
It is downright frustrating when I serve alongside wonderful parishioners and don’t know their names. I am sure it is discouraging to longtime, faithful parishioners that their priests don’t know who they are either.
We are far from the ideal in our current situation. We all need heavy doses of patience and charity as clergy and laypeople together try to do the Lord’s work in our parishes and parish groupings.
Father Almade is administrator of the parish grouping that includes St. Colman in Turtle Creek, St. John Fisher in Churchill and St. Jude in Wilmerding.