Bishop Conlon Column Nov 05

Guidelines for Parish Planning




Several weeks ago, in a column in The Steubenville Register, I introduced the topic of planning for the future configuration of our parishes.  My comments are republished in this issue of the paper as the introduction of a larger document, entitled “Parish Configuration in the Diocese of Steubenville” (see page xx).  In addition to the introduction, there are a set of “Guidelines for Parish Configuration”, comprised of “Definitions” and “Standards”.

These guidelines have been discussed by the Presbyteral Council and the five Deanery Pastoral Councils.  I appreciate the feedback I received from these bodies.  Now the guidelines are being published for use by the Deanery Pastoral Councils in their planning work over the next year and a half.


I would like to take this opportunity to make a few comments on the guidelines, especially the “Standards”.  First of all, the guidelines are intended to create a common language and a sense of fairness throughout the diocese.  They also reflect, in some cases, norms established in church law and, in other cases, pastoral ideals.  At the same time, there is a recognition that unique circumstances will sometimes require unique solutions.


Standards 5, 6, 7 and 8 are intended to preserve the dignity of the Sunday Mass, which needs to be celebrated in a full and dignified fashion, and to recognize that priests, who will be fewer in the years ahead, have physical and emotional limits like everyone else.  They are also intended to uphold the value that Sunday Mass is intended to gather the parish community together in communion with the Lord Jesus.


These four standards run contrary to the notion of convenience, which has come to dominate our thinking in recent years.  Many of our parishes have as many Masses today as they did years ago, even though the number of people attending them has decreased.  Also, we need to keep in mind a significant development in the scheduling of Masses.  It used to be that virtually all Sunday-obligation Masses were scheduled in a narrow timeframe on Sunday morning.  This was because we were required to fast from midnight until after Mass and because vigil Masses on Saturday were not permitted.  With the advent of the hour fast and vigil Masses the timeframe has expanded considerably.

I understand that the adjustment of a parish’s Mass schedule is about the most unpopular change that can be introduced into the life of a parish.  I also understand that the reduction in the number of Masses can have a severely detrimental effect on a parish, since many people will simply go elsewhere.  So, any changes in Mass schedules that result from the planning process will force those affected to examine their values and to accept some sacrifice.


Standard 9 generated much discussion and questioning in the Deanery Pastoral Councils.  Why not Communion services when Mass cannot be celebrated at a particular time or in a particular parish?  There are two reasons.  First, our obligation as Catholics is to participate in Mass on Sundays, not to receive Communion, as important as that is.  Thus, a Communion service is an acceptable alternative only if we truly have no opportunity to participate in Mass.  Second, there is a real risk that many people will not understand the difference between Mass and a Communion service.  And there is a big difference.


The Year of the Eucharist, proclaimed by Pope John Paul II has just ended.  The year was an excellent opportunity for us to deepen our knowledge about and love for the Eucharist.  From the first days of the Church until Christ comes again, the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist stands at the center of the Church’s life.  The planning process being undertaken by the Deanery Pastoral Councils is intended to assure that reality in our diocese.  To accomplish that reality will require some changes, perhaps in the way our parishes are configured, surely in the way Masses are scheduled.   The sacrifices entailed in these changes will be worth preserving the centrality of the Sunday Eucharist and the vitality of parish life in general.