By Gerald Korson
The numbers tell the story, and the story is becoming increasingly common for the Catholic Church in the United States.
New vocations to the ministerial priesthood fall far short of the pace at which older priests are retiring and dying. In many metropolitan areas, the Catholic population has shifted from the inner city to the suburbs. Mass attendance is down in many areas to as little as 20 percent of the Catholic residents. As Sunday collections drop and the costs of maintenance and utilities increase, balancing a church budget can become an impossible task for even the most savvy pastor or parish finance council.
Faced with such realities, pastoral planning processes in a number of dioceses have led bishops to conclude that some churches need to close while others must merge with neighboring parishes.
Parish reconfiguration is always a controversial step, and understandably so. Many Catholics identify strongly with their parish because they have a long personal history there. The church building may be drafty, dark and in need of repair, but it is home to its faithful parishioners.
Sentimentality aside, the logic is evident: Pastoral planning for a reconfiguration of parishes can mean a more efficient use of resources, which allows the Church to serve more people more efficiently. There's a familiar word for optimizing available resources: "stewardship."
Dan Conway, president and CEO of the consulting firm RSI Catholic Services, pointed out the stewardship connection in an address earlier this year to the clergy of the Diocese of Orange, Calif.
" Good planning is good stewardship, and vice versa,"he said at the diocese's annual Stewardship Day in March. "The process of pastoral planning is a stewardship activity -- discerning the gifts we have received from God, nurturing and developing them through the power of God's grace and sharing them generously with others in response to the challenges and opportunities of our time."
The Diocese of Camden, N.J., is a case in point. Bishop Joseph A. Galante is among the latest to take the painful and unpopular step. In April, he announced that the number of parishes in the diocese will be reduced by nearly half, from 124 down to 66. About 30 churches will close, and the rest will merge or be clustered with other parishes.
A lay "director of family life" will be appointed at some of the "secondary" worship sites to coordinate the community's day-to-day operations.
"This is radical," Bishop Galante told reporters at the time. "It's being done piecemeal in so many dioceses, especially in the East. What's radical is [that] we're trying to do it at one time, in the diocese as a whole."
Mass attendance in Camden is "appalling," at less than 24 percent, he said. By 2015, the number of priests is projected to drop to 85, about half the present total.
So how is such a reconfiguration an expression of stewardship? There, too, the numbers tell the story. When a church is closed, there are obvious and immediate cost savings in maintenance, utilities and staff. When parishes consolidate or cluster, the parish staffs often consolidate as well.
In one Camden deanery, for example, Bishop Galante announced plans to consolidate four parishes, one of which already served two churches, into a single parish with just two churches. Instead of having a pastor and parish staff at each of the four parishes, the newly configured parish would get along with perhaps one priest and one staff. The Catholic community would also save the costs of upkeep on the three churches.
The Diocese of Scranton, Pa., is embarking on its own process of parish consolidation, reportedly with plans to reduce the number of churches in some deaneries by more than half. Msgr. Vincent J. Grimalia, vicar general for the diocese, has emphasized the stewardship aspect of the move in a series of articles in the diocesan newspaper.
Writing in the May 8 issue of The Catholic Light, he pointed out that of the 20 criteria that guide the pastoral planning process, 10 of these "involve various aspects of stewardship or the grateful and responsible use of gifts, talents, abilities and resources for the evangelizing mission of the parish."
One way for a parish to express both its Catholic identity and stewardship, he said, is through partnership with other parishes.
"Partnerships conserve resources by avoiding unnecessary duplication of services by working together to do things that are needed, but which a single parish might not be able to do alone," said Msgr. Grimalia.
If the faithful see how stewardship, vocation and mission are interconnected, he said, "it will help us to understand our Christian responsibility as individuals and as members of a parish, a diocese and the universal Church more clearly."
--Gerald Korson writes from Indiana.
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