Monday, May 07, 2018 - Updated: 1:40 pm
This is the latest in a series of columns about On Mission for The Church Alive!
“Why are we doing this? Tell me again.”
That might be the response of many Catholics across the six counties of the Diocese of Pittsburgh following Bishop David Zubik’s decisions about parish groupings and clergy assignments. What is this “On Mission” thing anyway? Why do we have to change?
For three years, the bishop, his staff and your clergy have sought to explain this. But for many people such messages don’t register until they experience change.
During summer 2016, we invited all Catholics to attend one of 17 presentations at parishes stretching from Butler County to Greene County, to address “Rumors, Rumblings and Realities.” Those who attended learned about the challenges facing churches across the northeastern United States, and specifically here in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. We are experiencing declines in overall population, Mass participation and sacramental life. We have fewer priests, and many of our parishes are struggling financially. This requires a response.
But we can’t respond simply to facts and figures. Our faith is about our love for and service to God. How can our churches serve him best when our communities have changed dramatically? How can we follow Jesus, as his disciples?
Our priests and deacons, catechetical ministers and Catholic school teachers all tell us the same thing: Not all Catholics are on fire for the Lord. Many who come to Mass don’t sing, or sing half-heartedly. The responses are prayed without fervor. Still others attend rarely or not at all. Parents drop off their children to prepare for first Communion and confirmation, but these same kids and parents are seldom at Mass.
A handful of people — most of them aging — lead and serve in our organizations and ministries. Who, in the next generation, is prepared to step up as a Lady of Charity, volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society or even to stuff bulletins? Who will continue this wonderful outreach and service?
Many of our parishes struggle just to pay utilities and keep the lights on. There is no money left over to hire professionally trained staff to assist the priest with evangelization, to reach out to those who have drifted away because they were bored or were chased away because they were different.
The driving force behind On Mission for The Church Alive! is Bishop’s Zubik’s dream that every Catholic in this diocese would be so excited about the faith that they would center their lives around Jesus. That excitement should overflow into families, neighborhoods, communities. And it will, if our parishes have been re-energized for the joyful work of worship, service and outreach. The changes that we will experience in October, when the groupings and assignments go into effect, are the first building blocks in transforming our parishes into communities known for hospitality, compassion and formation of disciples.
We will work to balance pastoral sensitivity toward our longtime members with creative outreach to those who need a deeper relationship with Jesus. The changes are not a criticism of the good and holy work that has been done for decades by dedicated staff, volunteers and clergy. Rather, this is a call to shift our perspective, to grasp the fact that the ways we have been operating — methods of teaching and communication — are no longer bearing fruit. These methods used to work. They served us well. But the ground we assumed was stable has shifted. We argue over why that happened, but our focus has to be on how to change so that we reach those who have stopped paying attention.
How do we respond today? How do we connect with people when communication is so different for millennials than for baby boomers? Jesus always met people where they were and invited them to walk with him. How can we imitate his method?
When Pope Francis spoke about the obligation of every baptized person to bring others to meet Jesus, he offered three keys: Get up, draw near, start with an actual situation.
The Holy Father has challenged every Catholic to get up, to move out to where people are in spiritual need, rather than sit in our churches and wait for them to come to us.
Will some parish grouping create a neighborhood coffee house or drop-in center? A parish in Orlando does that. Some of you know about the Catholic gatherings in places where young people socialize — Theology on Tap is one example. Might some parish groupings with potential to engage younger Catholics begin to regularly sponsor such gatherings?
Next, Pope Francis tells us to draw near to those who need God’s love and mercy. This is combined with his third piece of advice: to see the reality of the situations we encounter and be present to those in those situations.
When there is a death in your parish, what’s your response? Do you think it is someone else’s job to bring food or send a card? When you know that a family is struggling because someone is ill, do you arrange for your fellow parishioners to take turns bringing food to that home? These are ways to evangelize. They are a witness of Jesus’ love, not only to the one who is ill, but to the extended family. How else could we meet people where they are, in the situations of their lives? If a college campus is nearby, how do older parishioners demonstrate care for the students there?
This kind of change will take time. We can’t expect that on Monday, Oct. 15, all of our concerns will melt away. But we can believe that as more people are willing to get on board and dream big, as more are willing to let go of what no longer works, as more want to deepen the connection between Jesus and every Catholic — then we will move forward on the mission that Jesus has called us to since our baptism
I have been writing these columns for you every week as we have prepared for these announcements. Now, I need to spend more time assisting our clergy and parishes through this transition, so I will write every other week. But I will continue to pray daily for all of you, as I hope you do for me.
Keep looking up. Don’t stop praying and don’t stop dreaming. Take inventory this week. How will you make the vision a reality?
Father Esposito is episcopal vicar for On Mission for The Church Alive! For more about On Mission, go to https://diopitt.org/onmission.