Monday, December 10, 2018 - Updated: 10:58 am
Father Demetrius Gallitzin was a pioneer in western Pennsylvania. The former Russian prince rode on horseback from town to town in the early 1800s, teaching the faith and celebrating Mass across a frontier that would become the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
During the 41 years of Father Gallitzin’s tireless ministry, the number of Catholics in the region increased from about one dozen to approximately 10,000.
Later in the century, Catholic immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe became pioneers. Men laboring in the mines, mills and factories sent money back to their families so they could join them and make a better life for the children. Many Catholics only received the sacraments when a priest could visit, often holding Mass in a public building or a large home.
Their descendants became settlers who built churches, schools and hospitals.
“In coming here our ancestors were completely uprooted from their homelands, and they weren’t going back,” said Father Howard Campbell, regional vicar for pastoral vicariate Region 3. “Back then, the focus was to offer them familiar traditions and to grow in the faith.”
A student of history, Father Campbell has adopted an extended metaphor for On Mission for The Church Alive! that Father Lou Vallone presented last year to his brother priests. Father Vallone compared Catholics to explorers, pioneers and settlers.
“The apostles were explorers, like Lewis and Clark, making discoveries and pushing the horizon,” Father Vallone said. “Behind them came the pioneers in wagon trains who decided if the soil and water could sustain life. They were followed by settlers who made the territory their home.
“Generations ago, the Diocese of Pittsburgh became a settlers’ church, with many ethnic parishes and schools,” he said. “But we can’t remain settlers because the land is no longer sustainable.”
Statistics support his statement. With Mass attendance down more than 40 percent since 2000, participation in the sacraments decreasing as much as 50 percent, and fewer priests available to serve the people, a new approach is needed.
“We’re in a different place today,” Father Campbell said. “Our population has aged considerably, the economy has changed, and young people are hungry to engage in the faith and live it.
“Encouraging parishioners to be willing to metaphorically move to a new place requires a bond of trust with the clergy,” he said. “We need to figure out ways to connect with those who are alienated from the faith and those who have no faith.”
For practicing Catholics, it will require less emphasis on church buildings and greater attention paid to formation and evangelization, continuing to learn the faith and sharing it with all who are in need of God’s love and mercy.
“Four generations of Catholics in the Pittsburgh region have been settlers,” Father Vallone said. “Now we’re asking our people to move into a new model of parish that’s not building-based but centered on being the body of Christ.
“What are you leaving for your kids and grandkids?” he asked.
“Our ancestors had an intense faith,” Father Campbell said. “They built these parishes out of a deep devotion to God and to honor him. We can learn from them.”
“Christianity has to be constantly moving forward,” Father Vallone said. “Young people must be inspired to look to their own horizons, and it’s up to us to load up the wagon train and be pioneers again.”