Something extraordinary is going on—has been since last spring, will be for the foreseeable future—throughout the archdiocese.
Well over a thousand committed Catholics, representatives from each of our 368 parishes—trustees, parish council members, religious women and men, deacons and priests—are participating in a structured process of strategic pastoral planning, Making All Things New.
This is our attempt, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to study carefully our parishes, asking how they can be faithful to their sacred task of teaching, serving, and sanctifying, according to the mind and heart of Christ.
Can neighboring parishes work more closely together, sharing priests, personnel, staff, buildings, resources? Should some parishes combine or merge? Might some parishes even have to close, as their people have moved, and another, more vibrant parish is so close? Might some parishes have to build or expand? Perhaps new parishes are needed in given areas?
This whole project is serving as an examination of conscience, as God’s people and their shepherds ask how our parishes are meeting the expectations of Jesus and His Church.
It comes at a good time, since Pope Francis has asked us all to take a hard look back at how we as a Church are living up to what Our Lord has asked.
Yes, it’s time-consuming, occasionally frustrating and tedious, and neuralgic. We could have done it differently: I could simply have decided on my own what parishes should merge or close. That would have been quicker, more efficient...and disastrous. Those days are over...
Every diocese in the country that has done this strategic pastoral planning—and most have—tell us that there is no easy, fast way to do it. There’s no painless way to do it. But, it can be far less painful if the people are a big part of the process. They must be heard.
So, well over 90 percent of our parishes—a few refuse to cooperate (Watch: they’ll be the ones who complain most when decisions are made.)—are now reflecting upon the pivotal question: just what makes a parish alive, attractive, and successful in bringing people closer to Jesus and His Church?
Benchmarks are coming in from our groups. I’ve asked my own staff, as well as the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council and Presbyteral Council to take a stab at giving some indicators of an effective parish, some standards our clusters can use to guide them in their recommendations.
Let me try to sum them up under the three mandates that come from the Gospel, the triple mission given the Church: to teach, to serve, to sanctify. So, let’s take each one, starting with the last (and most important), and try to arrive at a blueprint for a pastorally sound parish.
• well-attended Sunday Masses, reverently and joyfully celebrated, with full and active participation of the faithful (e.g., lectors, Eucharistic ministers [when not sufficient clergy], servers, choirs, ushers), uplifting music, a welcome, hospitable atmosphere, and a solid, well-prepared homily;
• the extension of Sunday Eucharist through daily Mass, and occasions of Eucharistic adoration;
• the ongoing “conversion of heart” through the availability of the sacrament of penance (amply scheduled), parish days of recollection, missions, and invitations to retreats;
• a rich devotional life with such popular piety as novenas, feast day observances, stations of the cross, the Rosary;
• priests, deacons, and trusted leaders available for spiritual direction, moral guidance, pastoral counseling and encouragement.
• encouragement and availability to all the sacraments of the Church: the Eucharist, confession, baptism, confirmations, marriage, and the anointing of the sick;
• special solicitude for the infirm, elders, and homebound, making sure they have a bond with the parish, and ample opportunity for the sacraments in their own setting;
• outreach and evangelization for those who are recently arrived, or who have left the Church;
• the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults for those eager to become Catholic;
• married couples and families active, with troubled marriages and fractured families at home in the parish;
• promotion of vocations to the priesthood; diaconate; consecrated and religious life for women and men; to lifelong, life-giving, loving faithful marriage; and to lay discipleship.
• an atmosphere of prayer in the parish, with special intentions part of daily intercession, the church open for visits, and the universal call to holiness fostered.
• prayers for the faithful departed, and special care at funerals for those grieving.
• the poor, hungry, and struggling are welcomed and tended to with charity;
• the immigrant, sick, physically and mentally challenged, and the unborn are embraced, protected, and cared for;
• community outreach is encouraged in cooperation with ecumenical and civic entities;
• commitment to the wider Church, especially the Holy Father, the missions, the suffering Church, and the archdiocese;
• special support groups, e.g., for the grieving, addicted, are available;
• our young people (teenagers and young adults) are vigorously sought, welcomed, and helped to feel part of the parish;
• care for hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons within the parish;
• athletics, socials, celebrations and organizations, that make the parish a real home.
• Since the mandate to govern is also part of to serve, a successful parish would have:
• a parish council;
• a finance council;
• the buildings and grounds in good order;
• an annual audit;
• a budget in the black, with bills responsibly met—including those to the archdiocese—and a debt, if there is one, being responsibly paid down. [N.B. While financial solvency is not the only criteria for a vibrant parish, it is a very important one! If a parish cannot pay its priests, its bills, and keep up its programs and buildings, it could be a sign the parish should close or merge with another.]
• clergy (priests, deacons) and pastoral ministers who are present, reliable, and approachable.
• full participation (by financial support and encouragement of children to attend) the regional or parochial school;
• a program of religious education for children in grades 1-8, who are not in a Catholic day school, administered by a paid professional, with credentialed catechists;
• ongoing formation in the faith for youth and adults;
• the availability of sound spiritual reading, religious literature, and Catholic New York in the parish;
• special invitations to non-Catholics, or Catholics who have drifted away, to learn about the faith;
• Bible study.
Did I miss anything? I probably did! Sorry!
But it’s a start. As we continue to look at our parishes, let’s give them a report card. Some might soberly and sadly conclude their parish just isn’t cutting it. They may recommend more intense collaboration with their neighboring parish, or, even to merge—or close and join them.
Now, not even our best parishes—and we’ve got a bunch of them—can live up to all of these. That’s why we’re doing strategic pastoral planning—to see how we can do it even better!
Thanks for doing it! We’re off to a good start. We have some tough decisions ahead. Nothing is impossible with God!