Peering into the future

Thursday, October 18, 2018 - Updated: 3:16 pm

By Father Frank D. Almade

The Diocese of Pittsburgh is in the midst of massive change through the On Mission for The Church Alive! planning initiative. Priests, staff and the faithful are struggling with what to do next weekend and the first Christmas in the new parish groupings.

But what of the future beyond our noses? Allow me to gaze into my crystal ball and guess at what the future of the Catholic Church in western Pennsylvania might bring in the next generation.

Smaller in number: Clearly we are shrinking. In 1960, there were 1 million Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. When I was ordained a priest in 1978, maybe 850,000. The 2018 diocesan directory says our local church has 630,379 souls.

For at least the last 10 years diocesan-wide, we buried more people than we baptized or received into full communion. The number of active churchgoers has also declined. In 2000, 250,000 attended Sunday Mass on any given weekend. In 2016, less than 150,000. Will our Church Alive efforts increase the number of Catholics and church participants?

Focused on evangelization: Jesus showed us how to share the good news of the kingdom of God and called us to imitate him. But some generations were content to let the church grow through demographic increases alone. Not this generation. We are now explicit about the need for training, programs and strategies to tell people about Jesus Christ and why his way of living is worth following.

No longer are clergy expected to be the sole evangelizers. Jesus called every baptized person to tell others about his love and mercy. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is not just a September to Easter program, but a year-round imperative of welcoming new members and welcoming back old friends.

Poorer in funds with fewer parishes and buildings: With fewer people come fewer donations. On Mission for The Church Alive! has responded to fewer priests and fewer people by merging parishes into larger groupings. In 1987, there were 333 parishes in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Today, 188. In five years, maybe 57. Inevitably, this will mean fewer church buildings. But the parishes should be more vibrant spiritually and more stable financially. Fewer Catholics also will mean rightful emphasis on Christian stewardship and tithing.

Richer in ministry: There was a time when people thought only a priest could carry out ministry, when lay ministry was thought optional. Now we realize that lay ministry is every bit as essential to the workings of the church as priesthood. That’s not a reaction to fewer priests: it’s what Jesus intended.

Every baptized Christian can, and should, participate in some ministry of the church. Several of these are “ecclesial ministries,” where lay women and men oversee staff and volunteers in the areas of liturgy, catechesis, administration and finances, community outreach and evangelization. Every day more laity discover how to use their God-given talents and abilities in the service of the church.

More committed in discipleship: Older Catholics like me can remember when all the church asked of the laity was to “pay, pray and obey.” Not today.

Discipleship in Jesus was, is and always will be demanding. Not because the pastors or bishops or canon law dictate, but because Jesus himself is saying to each and every one of us: “Follow me.” Follow him into a life of daily prayer, weekly or daily participation in the Eucharist, biblical literacy, and mercy, justice and compassion to all neighbors, near and far. Follow him through a lifetime of reflection on how to translate the Gospel into action individually and communally. Follow him into telling family, friends and neighbors about the good news of God’s love.

More diverse: American dioceses welcome priests from many lands, including India, Nigeria, Korea and Vietnam. Immigrants fill our parishes with worship in several languages. Diversity is not a politically correct concession. It has been necessary from New Testament times because the church has always been and remains universal.

More collaborative: Catholic parishes used to be “silos,” worlds unto themselves. Our experience of fewer priests has forced us to share them with neighboring parishes. Beyond that, our clergy and lay ecclesial ministers work across parish boundaries on programs such as youth ministry and social outreach. The parish groupings of On Mission will make such collaboration part of our pastoral DNA.

Collaboration also will extend to our brothers and sisters in Protestant and Orthodox churches, to our friends in Jewish and Muslim communities, and even coalitions with people of little faith, on values-driven social issues (like opposing abortion and euthanasia, and supporting peace-building and ecological awareness).

More demanding: Sometimes sacred Scripture is consoling. Sometimes it is challenging. “To whom much is given, more will be expected” (Luke 12:48) is a saying of Jesus that deeply haunts me. In our faith, we Catholics have been given riches beyond counting. In the future we will be judged on how and whether we share widely these riches of the love of God, the salvation won by Christ on the cross, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit in and through the Catholic Church.

Father Almade is pastor of Mary, Mother of Hope, St. Joseph the Worker, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Vitus parishes in New Castle until Oct. 15. After that date he will be administrator of the parish grouping that includes St. Jude in Wilmerding, St. Colman in Turtle Creek and St. John Fisher in Churchill.

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