As I mentioned in my previous post, our neighboring parishes of Christ the King, Bessemer-Hillsville, and St. James the Apostle, Pulaski, here in Lawrence County are receiving a deacon as administrator, John Carran, effective July 27. This follows the retirement of Father Jim Downs later this month.
Deacon administrators are one of several strategies which the Diocese of Pittsburgh is using to address the decline in the number of available active priests. Other pastoral strategies are one pastor for multiple parishes (like what yours truly is doing in the city of New Castle), sharing pastoral staff, collaboration among parishes in various ministries, team ministry, a woman religious as "parish life collaborator," increased prayer for all vocations, including to the priesthood, and reducing the number of scheduled Sunday Masses in parishes. I suspect that next year a couple more deacons may be appointed to full-time administration of parishes, and after them down the road, a few layfolk as well.
This is the negative dimension of On Mission for the Church Alive, which is the diocesan-wide planning process for all our parishes we are undergoing. Many of our parishioners are having a hard time dealing with this. In our four parishes we have received over 425 written responses to our invitation to consultation regarding a new Sunday Mass schedule. Most of them are in the vein of "take a Mass from their parish, not from my parish." I hosted an open house on Tuesday, June 30, at St. Joseph the Worker church hall. This was an opportunity for parishioners to come and express their opinion. And they did! Over 75 people came, and many spoke. Most of the questions were really sermons, saying we want to keep things in our parish as they are.
I reiterated the fact that where right now we have five priests to cover seven parishes, celebrating 20 Sunday Masses, at of the end of the month we will have only four priests for these same parishes, celebrating maybe 13 or 14 Sunday Masses. They reiterated their self-interest.
I get it. Change is hard. Folks say to me, in effect, Father, there are so many changes in the world, why can't the Church be immune to change? And I respond, we the church are also part of the world. We have to change, too.
Actually, I thought just about everyone who turned out on Tuesday night were civil and understanding of the big picture. Several quietly said to me, "It'll be OK, Father. We'll get through this. We support you, and know you're only doing what you have to."
The big picture is a positive message. This is the bishop's call to be a truly evangelical church, to reach out, to invite, to call again the people to the person and love of Jesus Christ. Whether you reference the many initiatives of Peter and Paul and other disciples in the Acts of the Apostles, or Matthew 28:19 ("Go teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"), the aspect of mission is fundamental to the church. As one theologian says, the church doesn't have a mission, the mission of Christ has a church to enact it.
What is hard is to address both of these perspectives in our planning and ministry. F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted as saying, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." I know that I have a tendency, usually unconscious, to address the negative. I know, too, that most people are comfortable only talking about the positive. How do you keep both before you?
This is the challenge of Bishop Zubik's call for On Mission for the Church Alive -- to address the realities for our parishes and institutional structures of fewer priests and fewer parishioners, while as the same time to look forward and plan to enact a future with hope of spiritual growth for our communities of faith.