Catholics throughout much of the United States have grown accustomed to seeing their parishes merged and closed and their priests begin pastoring multiple parishes. For a generation, this process has largely happened on a piecemeal basis. But it has become more common in recent years to see it carried out diocesanwide, affecting many parishes and priests at the same time. Such large-scale restructuring is happening now more than ever before, and it promises to permanently reshape what it means to be a Catholic — and to be a priest — in America.
Indeed, while it is unclear exactly how many dioceses are involved in some kind of reorganization process (there is no national office that coordinates such work), the list of those where it is happening right now includes the archdioceses of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, and the dioceses of Belleville, Illinois; Erie, Pennsylvania; Evansville, Indiana; Pittsburgh; Saginaw, Michigan; Sioux City, Iowa; Trenton, New Jersey; and Winona, Minnesota. Many others have recently emerged from such a process, including: Albany, New York; Cleveland; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Metuchen, New Jersey; Scranton, Pennsylvania; and Toledo, Ohio.
“This is one of the most important and most radical developments in the experience of being Catholic since Catholics came to this continent,” said Capuchin Father David Couturier, a national expert on pastoral planning and dean of the School of Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University.
Let’s take a look at what is driving these processes, how they’re being carried out and what it may mean to priestly ministry and the way laypeople experience their priests in the decades ahead.
A Perfect Storm
No single factor is driving the widespread restructuring. It is, rather, the result of a perfect storm of issues and circumstances that has hit the Church in the United States simultaneously. These include:
• Shifting demographics, resulting in diminishing Catholic populations, especially in the Northeast and Midwest.
• Cultural secularization, which means fewer active Catholics in the pews (and fewer envelopes in collection baskets).
• A priest shortage, therefore fewer clergy to serve the Catholics who do come.
• The clergy sex abuse scandal, which has pushed still more Catholics away and meant hundreds of millions of dollars spent in legal settlements to victims that might otherwise have been used to support pastoral programs and infrastructure.
Emphasis on degrees of responsibility among these various factors depends on who you ask, of course. Because each diocese carries out its own planning and reorganization independently, none are identical. There are, however, common elements.
In her role as chair of the board of the national Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development, Catherine Butel has a bird’s-eye view. She notes that the most common elements to diocesan reorganization efforts include: a thorough assessment of current realities; engagement of clergy and lay leaders; respect for the reality of grief and loss; careful adoption of alternative pastoral models; and multiple years of restabilization following restructuring.
But most of those leading such processes are quick to insist that there is more going on than institutional management, important as that may be. Most dioceses work hard to frame reorganization efforts within the fundamental context of Christian faith, discipleship and mission.
In Chicago, for example, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich has titled his massive archdiocesan restructuring process “Renew My Church.” In presenting it to both priests and people, he has repeatedly cited St. Francis of Assisi’s experience of Jesus telling him from the crucifix in the church of San Damiano, “Renew my church, which you see is in disrepair.”
“This is not just about institutional realignment,” said Father Louis Cameli, the cardinal’s delegate for formation and mission. “The heart of the matter is the renewal of the life of the Church. But to do that, you have to have structures organized in a way that can sustain the mission. They go together.”
In Boston, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley is heading a process that is focusing intensely on the call to evangelization shared by all Catholics. Called “Disciples in Mission,” the process has its own website, which insists, “Each element of this proposed plan is a means for enabling parish communities to fulfill the Gospel mission.”
“This is not a plan for closures, it’s a plan for evangelization. We’re putting parishes together in order to evangelize more effectively,” said Father Paul Soper, secretary for evangelization and discipleship in the archdiocese.
“A pastoral planning process that focuses on lack of priests or lack of money fails to see the point. Those are only symptoms. The primary problem is lack of people in the pews, engaged in their faith. People are not giving less money. Fewer people are giving. Why? There are a thousand reasons. Cultural Catholicism is a bygone reality,” Father Soper said.
“The focus has to be on making disciples. That’s not the same as caring for the people who come to church. We’re good at caring for the people who come. What about the people who aren’t coming? That demands one-on-one ministry. We need to support our disciples to become disciple-makers,” he said.
New Priestly Roles and Demands
Perhaps the group that will be most directly impacted and involved in the restructuring is diocesan priests. They will be on the front lines of most major changes, often being asked to pastor several parishes previously served by multiple priests; helping the laity understand, accept and navigate the difficult process of parish mergers and closings; and leading efforts to draw new souls into the Church.
“The main difference will be an understanding of ‘pastoring’ as a shared function — that ordination pertains to the ‘ordering of gifts’ in the whole community. That calls for the priest to appreciate with clarity his own charisms given for the sake of the community, along with the absolute necessity to call forth and anoint all of the baptized for their roles of service and ministry,” Butel said.
This is already the reality emerging in Boston, where parishes are being grouped into “collaboratives,” sharing the same pastor, deacon and leadership team while remaining independent canonical entities. Parishioners receive training in evangelization and are asked to develop an evangelization plan that envisions active members as a team of missionaries working alongside its priest. “Many of our priests are filled with inspiration by this. They tell me, ‘It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’ve never felt more like a Christian,’” Father Soper said.
Still, leaders acknowledge that these new structures will inevitably be more demanding of priests, and there is concern about the price to be paid.
“I don’t think there is enough research yet on the impact of all of this on priests in terms of their emotional health. It has stunned me to see priests suffering from PTSD as a result of the pressures of the scandal and [diocesan] reconfiguration,” Father Couturier said. “There is an emotional impact on priests of running three, four or five parishes simultaneously. I’m not convinced this is the long-term solution to the problems we’re addressing.”
Father Soper acknowledges “pastoring multiple parishes is stressful. It’s not easy on priests, but they are up to it.”
New ecclesial realities may also call for a new approach to the training that seminaries offer. Up to now, formation has presumed a young man would serve as an associate pastor in a parish for several years after ordination, carrying out pastoral ministries while an older, more experienced pastor handles administrative duties like finance and personnel. But today’s clergy numbers mean young priests will end up pastors very soon after ordination.
“These guys are not going to be associate pastors,” Father Couturier said. “Seminaries must adjust to that.”
All of this means life will be different for laypeople, too. For most Catholics, whose engagement in parish life is limited, it will primarily mean seeing less of their priest. But more active Catholics will be called upon to be more engaged in the evangelizing work of the Church. The idea is that, formed and guided as missionaries by their priests, these lay Catholics will be key figures in bringing the Gospel to their towns and cities. “They are going to have a sense that they really are collaborators with their priests. People will begin to sense that they’re genuinely needed in the life of the Church in decisive ways,” Father Cameli said.
With so many dioceses engaged in restructuring efforts, is there any sharing of wisdom and best practices among them? Father Paul Soper, head of the office directing reorganization efforts in the Archdiocese of Boston, said there are also several national conferences and workshops that help diocesan and parish leaders to navigate these waters, share experiences and develop both their skills and their faith. These include:
• Amazing Parish Conference
), an annual event organized by a group of laypeople to train priests and laity alike in business, communications and evangelization methods.
• Catholic Leadership Institute
), a lay-run, bishop-supported source for training for both clergy and laypeople.
• Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development
), an independent organization formed to help leaders foster effective planning for the pastoral life of the Church.
• Leadership Roundtable
), an organization of clergy and laity that promotes best practices in management, finances, communications and human resources, offered by lay experts in the these fields.
Some point out that this sounds a lot like the sort of ecclesiology that has been talked about since the Second Vatican Council — and in many ways since the first Pentecost. Could the most troubling aspects of the Church’s life today end up pushing us to be the Church we were intended to be all along?
“In the end, necessity is the mother of invention. So while no one would have wished for a priest shortage, and while the Second Vatican Council already called for a fuller participation of the laity in all aspects of Church life, the development of lay ecclesial ministry does seem to coincide with those parts of the country where the priest shortage is more pronounced,” Butel says.
Besides bringing the Church’s message of salvation to the world, the hope is that it will also result in bringing more of the world to church. Otherwise, parishes will continue to struggle to maintain buildings and programs that have long been taken for granted.
“If only 15 percent of Catholics are shouldering the financial responsibility of maintaining the structures of the Church, it’s going to be heavy,” Father Couturier said.
Forward with Hope
It is important to note that many of the challenges are foreign to some areas of the Church in the United States. In the South, West and Southwest, changing demographics mean more Catholics, not fewer, and the need is for new and larger church buildings. But for the rest of the country’s dioceses, grave challenges remain.
Each of the experts cited above — Butel, Father Cameli, Father Couturier and Father Soper — expressed confidence that the Church will find solutions to the problems it faces.
“Every day we call upon Jesus in our celebration of Mass, and he comes into our presence,” Father Soper said. “How could we not be hope-filled?”
BARRY HUDOCK is the author of “Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey Toward Vatican II” (Michael Glazier, $19.95).