"How do we keep the Catholic presence in this day and
age when there are significant challenges? If we come to this question
through a negative lens, we've done a disservice to the future," said
John Manning, director of the Office of Pastoral Planning for the Diocese of
A year after Bishop Howard J. Hubbard announced the
"Called to be Church" planning process, Mr. Manning spoke with The
Evangelist about the challenges faced by planning teams throughout the
Some of those challenges include the pace of discussion,
change, confusion about the roles of priests and parish life directors,
frustration among some about too much talk and not enough action, and
Mr. Manning finds planning groups working at different
speeds around the 14-county Diocese.
Some are proceeding briskly, at ease with discussions
regarding the future of the Church; others are just beginning to be
"comfortable with each other," he said.
Still others, he said, are "mired in suspicion and
mistrust of the process. Group dynamics vary, according to philosophies and
understanding of change by the participants."
Fear of change
In dealing with change, Mr. Manning said, some people
experience mistrust, fear and skepticism.
He hopes that the planning groups will be able to look at
the process through "a lens of hope and energy, versus one of
He added that "the question on the table is not so much
'Is the church building important?' as 'Is the Eucharist important?'"
The need to change in order to adapt to a new century's
challenges is universal in the Northeast, said Mr. Manning.
In June, officials from the Diocese met with representatives
from nearby dioceses to share ideas about pastoral planning. They discovered
that all seven dioceses in New York State are going through pastoral
planning to combat the declining number of priests and religious,
demographic shifts, the secularization of society, and declining Mass
The Albany Diocese is one of the only dioceses whose
planning groups are starting at the parish level and whose clusters will be
making recommendations to the Bishop, he said, noting, "Solutions are
being asked on a local level."
Mr. Manning recommended that parishes struggling with
inter-parish divisions try to see themselves not as separate entities, but
as the Catholic Church in their given area, invested with the responsibility
of taking care of the sacramental and spiritual life of all Catholics.
With that viewpoint, he added, discussions of
consolidations, Mass schedules, religious education programs and so on can
be done more easily.
"This is a chance to model the parish of the
future," he explained. "We have a tremendous opportunity to create
a new local community. Although it's challenging, we hope Catholics will
rise to responsibility."
Some planning groups have expressed concerns about the role
of the priest or parish life director in the planning process. Some leaders
take too much of the discussion for themselves, say some groups; others
wonder if their parish leader is purposefully holding back from conversation
when they could be more helpful.
Mr. Manning said that the solution lies somewhere in the
middle recommends "a balanced approach to participation."
Groups have also asked Mr. Manning for advice about what
changes to implement immediately and what to shelve for further discussion.
He replies that "right-now solutions" for common problems aren't
"As long as they are things the local level has the
authority to do," he explained, "they can begin immediately."
Communication to other Catholics about what the planning
groups are doing is crucial, he noted. "In June of '08," Mr.
Manning said, "there should be no surprises" when the parish
presents its recommendations to the Diocese.
Planners can increase their communication with parishioners
through bulletin inserts, pulpit announcements and newsletters sent to
If what is being decided "stays within the core
group," he warned, "nobody will know what 'Called to be Church'
was about. Invite people to break down fears and stereotypes, and keep
"Many see planning as frustrating to do, but not do it
would be irresponsible. The hope of the Diocese and the hope of Bishop
Howard J. Hubbard is that Catholics take ownership. This is their