Bishop Conlon Feb 09
Moving Forward in Faith, Hope and Love
by Bishop R, Daniel Conlon
Before moving to the conclusion, however, it is important to review the process.
For planning purposes, each deanery was allotted a certain number of priests, based on the number of people attending Sunday Mass and the geographical size of the deanery. I also provided the deanery pastoral councils with a set of guidelines to assist their work. Those guidelines are reprinted here. (Page 3)
In the summer of 2007, draft plans from the councils were published in The Steubenville Register, along with some comments from me. The purpose of that exercise was to inform everyone in the diocese about progress in the planning process in all the deaneries and to allow everyone to give their comments by way of their pastor, parish pastoral council or parish representatives on their deanery pastoral council. Those draft plans from 2007, as well as my comments, can be viewed on the Diocese of Steubenville’s Web site (www.diosteub.org). The final plans approved now are substantially the same as the 2007 drafts. (Summarized on Page 4)
Finally, where the plans called for significant change to the existing status of parishes, I asked the deanery pastoral councils to conduct listening sessions in 2008, so that parishioners could understand what was being proposed and could offer comments. The councils still had the opportunity to modify their plans before submitting their final draft to me last fall.
Originally the plans were intended to serve our needs through 2010. Now it appears they will be useful through the next four or five years. As we approach that point, a determination will be made whether another planning effort is needed. Also, while it is important to implement the plans and for the deanery pastoral councils to oversee their implementation, changing circumstances may warrant some adjustments along the way.
I am very grateful to the members of the deanery pastoral councils, which include all of our parish priests and lay representatives from every parish and mission. The kind of work they have done on these plans is not easy, especially given the emotional connection they have with their own parishes. It is also always more difficult to plan for shrinking resources than expanding ones.
Will some parishes close as a result of this planning process? Yes. Five will close or merge this year. Over the next 10 years or so, several more are likely to close. Although parishes and missions have closed in our diocese over a long period of time, every single closing is incredibly painful. The members are almost never ready for it to happen.
Hard work and goodwill will help with the transitions. There needs to be a mindset among parishioners of the “receiving” parishes that their parishes are changing too, as they incorporate brothers and sisters in Christ, their gifts and their traditions.
Although some of our parishes have weakened over the years and their viability is uncertain, the main impetus for the planning process was the growing decline in the number of priests. Still, the Diocese of Steubenville has the smallest ratio of people to active-duty priests among all the dioceses in the United States (about 750- to-1). It’s just that we are organized generally in small parishes.
An important element in each of the deanery plans is the promotion of priestly vocations. God will give to the church as many priestly vocations as he believes are needed for the work of salvation. But we have to do our part. Partly that involves prayer and spiritual sacrifice. Partly it involves inviting potential candidates to consider the priesthood (and religious life) and supporting the vocation of those who may be called.
Where do priests come from? Besides God, they come from families and parishes. Most of the parishes of our diocese have not had a son of the parish ordained to the priesthood for 30 or 40 years or more. Many parents and grandparents today are reluctant to encourage or support a priestly vocation in their own family.
Another factor in our situation is the many Catholics who no longer practice the faith or do so minimally. Imitating the Good Shepherd, we are all called to seek out those who are lost or are on the fringes of the flock. Imagine how much stronger our parishes would be if the potential of these folks was included.
Building up parish life is a constant effort. Simply drifting along or thinking of a parish as a church building with Sunday Mass is not enough. Every parish must be able to provide a full range of liturgical, educational and service functions. The vast majority of parishioners must be committed to investing their spiritual and material gifts as good stewards of God’s kingdom on earth.
In the end, we need to be positive. And why not? We have faith in Christ Jesus. We have the sureness of the church’s teaching and the strength of the sacraments. We have each other in the body of Christ. Yes, we will lose some parishes, dear as they are to their members, rich as they are in memories. There is no way to minimize that loss. Nevertheless, we move forward in faith, hope and love. I see the goodness of God reflected in people everywhere I go in our diocese.
In this year of St. Paul, may we find encouragement from these words in his Letter to the Colossians:
“We do not cease praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding to live in a manner worthy of the Lord, so as to be fully pleasing, in every good work bearing fruit and growing in the knowledge of God, strengthened with every power, in accordance with his glorious might, for all endurance and patience, with joy giving thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light.”