Pittsburgh consolidations reflect hard truths

In less than 10 years, about half of the 211 priests currently in ministry in the Diocese of Pittsburgh will retire. Dozens of once vibrant urban church buildings will likely be shuttered for good as parishes are merged and consolidated.

“We’ve had a pretty significant decline since the turn of the century,” said Bob DeWitt, a spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

DeWitt told Our Sunday Visitor that since 2000 the diocese’s Catholic population has fallen from 753,147 to 632,138. In that time period, Mass attendance has fallen by about 40 percent, and thousands fewer Catholics are receiving their sacraments or sending their kids to diocesan schools.

Those trends prompted a diocesan commission in early September to announce its proposal that the diocese’s 188 parishes be merged into 48 groups, with the aim that the parishes in each group will share clergy, resources and ministries. The parishes may use multiple worship sites, but some church buildings will inevitably be closed.

Geographic shifts

“Back in the day, we had the demographics, families were larger and we had a culture that mostly supported organized religion,” DeWitt said. “Now, we have smaller families, different demographics and a culture that pulls people away from their faith.”

Like many other dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest, the Church in Pittsburgh has not been immune to demographic and social trends that have forced bishops from New England to Chicago to close and merge parishes and shut down many of their Catholic schools.

“Especially in places where the churches were built by immigrant communities, the demographics have changed. Catholics have moved to the Sun Belt and to the suburbs,” said Mark Gray, a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University and the director of CARA Catholic Poll.

Gray told OSV that the current situation in Pittsburgh, where scores of European Catholic immigrants settled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, does not surprise him. Many of the old ethnic urban parishes were built within short walking distances of one another.

“They weren’t organized for the Catholic population that is there today,” Gray said. “It just doesn’t make sense today to keep them all open.”

The Wider Shift
“The cultural center of the Catholic Church is shifting south. The Northeast is no longer the epicenter of American Catholicism — although at 41 percent Catholic, Rhode Island remains the most Catholic state in the country. Immigration from predominantly Catholic countries in Latin America means new Catholic populations are settling in the Southwest. In 1972, roughly 7 in 10 Catholics lived in either the Northeast (41 percent) or the Midwest (28 percent). Only about one-third of Catholics lived in the South (13 percent) or West (18 percent). Today, a majority of Catholics now reside in the South (29 percent) or West (25 percent). Currently, only about one-fourth (26 percent) of the U.S. Catholic population lives in the Northeast, and 20 percent live in the Midwest.”

In April 2015, the Diocese of Pittsburgh launched a renewal initiative — called “The Church is Alive!” — with the goals of reorganizing the diocese to best use its assets for present-day needs while also looking to reinvigorate its faith formation and adopt more of a long-term mission-focused outlook.

The possibility of closing parishes gets the bulk of the attention in the local media, but DeWitt said Bishop David A. Zubik is looking to address the root causes of the Church’s decline in the Pittsburgh area.

“A big part of our mission now is how do we move from maintenance to mission instead of just maintaining buildings that are underutilized,” DeWitt said.

Aging out

Like Pittsburgh, Church leaders in the Northeast and Midwest have adopted a new focus on reaching out to fallen-away Catholics, young adults and millennials. The pastoral planning initiatives in those dioceses are often rooted in the New Evangelization as Church leaders try to shift the emphasis away from maintaining crumbling infrastructure.

“It’s critical that we do a better job of forming our people in the Faith,” DeWitt said. “It’s absolutely critical that our mission addresses faith formation, especially for our young people but also for adults, and evangelization in getting the Gospel message out to our communities.”

Gray said the number of parishes in the Northeast and Midwest has fallen by 10 percent since 2000. At the same time, the Catholic population is exploding in the South and West as Catholics pursue new economic opportunities and a better quality of life.

“It’s a situation in which the Church has to understand where the Catholics are and make sure there are resources in those locations,” Gray said.

The diocesan renewal and reorganization in Pittsburgh has been a consultative process, said DeWitt, who explained that more than 27,000 parishioners attended 329 parish consultation meetings last fall to offer their thoughts and feedback.

According to the website for “The Church is Alive!,” about one-third of parishioners who attended those meetings said they were most concerned with the 40 percent decline in sacramental preparation. Another one-third of parishioners cited the aging population in the parishes, while the rest said their main concern was the increasing demands on clergy and lay staff.

Bishop Zubik

In an April 2016 public letter to the faithful, Bishop Zubik wrote that the Catholic community in southwestern Pennsylvania needed to “look honestly at the facts,” from sacramental trends to finances, the aging clergy and the region’s declining Catholic population.

“We need to study to have an accurate picture of where we are now so as to have a clearer picture of where we need to be,” said Bishop Zubik, who emphasized that the entire local Catholic community would need to closely study the situation together.

“We’re all members of the Body of Christ,” DeWitt said. “We all have gifts, and we’re all called to use those gifts to build up the Body of Christ.”

Looking to the future

In April 2018, Bishop Zubik will announce the final groupings of parishes, as well as how many Masses each group will have and the priests who will be assigned to them. The clergy assignments and new Mass schedules are scheduled to begin in September 2018. The parishes’ pastoral teams and ministries will somehow have to integrate with one another. New ministries, focusing on hospitality and transportation, will likely be needed.

Then, from 2019 to 2023, the parish mergers will take place. Each group will be asked to recommend which worship sites they want to keep open. DeWitt said most parishes will have two or three sites while some could have four. Other parishes may just have one worship site.

“We’re taking a lot of time for the consultation process, to be compassionate about all this,” said DeWitt, who added that Bishop Zubik understands that parish mergers and closings can be traumatic for longtime parishioners, especially those whose ancestors built those churches.

“It’s not something we take lightly. We understand the importance of it, but the bishop is primarily focused on building up the Body of Christ,” DeWitt said.

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Gray said the decision to shutter a parish is a difficult one that bishops have to make.

“It’s an equation that involves not only the population but the number of available priests as well,” he said. “It’s a decision that takes a lot of careful planning and attention to demography.”

DeWitt said the Diocese of Pittsburgh is prepared to “walk the journey” with the faithful while at the same time facing the difficulties head-on.

“If we’re going to reverse these trends, we’ve got to get at the heart of what’s happening,” DeWitt said, “And that’s forming our people better and taking our faith out into the community.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.