Fifteen months ago, we began an important
phase of pastoral planning in our Diocese, titled "Called to be
In this process, we are seeking to engage
pastoral leaders and parishioners in re-imagining and re-visioning the
mission and ministry of the Church in the Diocese of Albany in light of
declining numbers of ordained priests and vowed religious, shifting
demographics, growing secularization, and changing stewardship
This process is not primarily about the
closing, merging or consolidating of parishes, although such realities
may be part of the outcome. Rather, it is first and foremost about
ensuring that we are making the best use of the gifts God has shared
with us to perpetuate the mission of Jesus in our time in our place.
In other words, "Called to be
Church" is about re-examining what we in our 14-county Diocese are
doing in prayer and worship, faith formation, evangelization, Christian
service, and management of our buildings and financial resources to
assess what is effective (or ineffective) and what may need to change if
we are to fulfill the Gospel call to teach, to sanctify and to serve.
The great Russian novelist, Dostoevsky,
stated that "change is always traumatic." That is especially
true when change affects our life of faith, and when it impacts upon
those sacred places, traditions and memories that are so much a part of
our spiritual heritage.
On the other hand, change is an inevitable
part of human growth and development; to refuse to change in ways that
are constructive only leads to stagnation and death.
I truly appreciate how challenging change
can be. That is why we have developed a two-year process, which I hope
will better enable the people of our Diocese to become aware of the
realities we face, to have input about how best to address those
challenges, and to appreciate that changing worship sites, staffing
patterns and pastoral programs or services need not be negative or
de-energizing, but can be life-giving, spiritually fulfilling and
Ours, of course, is not the only diocese
facing change. Every diocese in the Northeast and Midwest of our nation
is experiencing this phenomenon to one degree or another.
For example, neighboring dioceses in the
state -- Syracuse, New York City and Buffalo -- have just completed the
initial phases of their own pastoral planning. The dioceses of Brooklyn,
Rochester and Ogdensburg, like our own, have been engaged in an ongoing
process for a period of time.
For the most part, the challenges are the
same; only the process by which they are being addressed differs. Some
approaches tend to be shorter and more "top-down"; others are
longer and more participatory. All, however, ultimately result in new
pastoral configurations and different staffing models for serving God's
We in the Albany Diocese have opted for a
more participatory process, involving 39 local planning groups that
represent the 165 parishes in the Diocese. These groups are composed of
pastors, parish life directors, parish staff and council members, and
During the past several months, these
planning groups have been meeting monthly to review the core mission of
the Church in terms of evangelization, life-long faith formation,
Christian service, and prayer and worship.
In the winter and spring of 2008, these
groups will address Church administration or stewardship, which will
focus on the development of a five-year plan (2009-2013) for the
fulfillment of the Church's mission.
That plan is to offer concrete
recommendations for the most effective use of all our resources,
including staffing, governance, finances and facilities.
As the recommendations of each planning
group are being developed during the first six months of 2008, I have
asked for full communication with parishioners through such vehicles as
town meetings, public presentations, bulletin inserts and even mailings
to all households. That way, the members of our Diocese will be aware of
what is being discussed or suggested, and have the opportunity for
comment before recommendations are submitted to the Diocese.
In addition, this fall, I will conduct
seven regional listening sessions with the planning groups. I look
forward to hearing firsthand the issues the groups are uncovering, the
frustrations they are encountering, the challenges they are facing, the
opportunities they are seeing, the expectations they have, and the
questions for which they seek answers.
The recommendations from the 39 planning
groups and 17 deaneries will be forwarded to the Diocese in June 2008,
and I will appoint a Pastoral Planning Review Committee -- comprised of
priests, deacons, religious and laity -- to scrutinize each of these
plans with a view to how comprehensive and realistic each is.
If the diocesan committee judges a
particular local plan to be incomplete or inadequate, there will be a
dialogue with the local groups and deaneries before a recommendation is
presented to me.
I will finalize all the plans and
promulgate their implementation in November 2008.
Once the recommendations are finalized,
they will be implemented gradually in accord with the milestones
contained in the plan. (For example, given the number of priests
projected by the Diocese who are available to serve in a certain
planning cluster, when Father X is scheduled to retire in 2010, a parish
life director will be appointed to take his place, and the pastor of the
neighboring parish will become the sacramental minister.)
Since last fall, more than 1,000 people
have been involved in the "Called to be Church" process
through town meetings, deanery gatherings and the local planning groups.
I have been impressed by some of the creative thinking that has emerged
* One suburban planning group is
contemplating the establishment of a youth center sponsored and financed
by all the parishes in that cluster to serve the spiritual, social and
faith formation needs of teenagers;
* another suburban planning group has been
talking about how best to assist parents with children between
conception and age five by providing better baptismal and pre-school
programs, handouts for home activities and rituals, and groups for
mothers during the day to share faith and talk abut issues of child
* a city planning group is discussing joint
ways to extend outreach to shut-ins, those in nursing homes, new
immigrants, the separated and divorced, gays and lesbians, and those
incarcerated in the local jail; and
* a planning group in a more rural area is
seeking to develop more effective ways to be of service to the wider
community by starting a deanery-wide justice/advocacy group to better
identify basic needs in the region, and to cooperate with Catholic
Charities and the New York State Catholic Advocacy Network to educate
parishioners about legislation that affects the poor as well as to
encourage parishioners to contact their elected officials to support or
Hope over fear
As I indicated at the outset of
"Called to be Church," if we are to be successful, we must
view the future not through the lens of fear, where we yearn for the
past or cling to the status quo, but through the lens of hope and
Progress will be made only when our
pastoral leaders and parishioners realize that our Catholic identity is
not tied to a particular building, a specific time for liturgy, a
long-standing ethnic or local tradition, or the drive to "keep our
parish at all cost."
Progress will be made when we realize that
our identity as Catholics is characterized by a deep-seated
understanding and conviction that, first and foremost, our faith is
rooted in a dynamic relationship with Jesus and His mission, which
changes and grows with the times.
For a variety of historical, social and
psychological reasons, it is difficult for us to enter the paschal
mystery of dying to ourselves so that new life might arise, but it is
absolutely essential for the future vitality of the Church that we
foster within ourselves an ability to "let go" and that we be
open to the Spirit.
That is the only way we will be able to
address the challenges and opportunities of our day positively and
Lest we wring our hands in the face of
pastoral planning, and cry out, "Woe is me," let us remember
that we are not the first generation who have had to deal with traumatic
change and paradigm shifts.
The history of salvation is replete with
the stories of heroic people responding to the challenging needs of
* Abraham, faced with sacrificing his son,
* Moses, torn by fidelity to God's
directives and by the obstinacy of the chosen people;
* Mary, seeking to reconcile the
announcement of the Angel Gabriel with her solemn commitment to
* Jesus, begging that the cup of suffering
be removed from Him, but choosing to do His Father's will;
* Juan Diego, proclaiming the vision of Our
Lady of Guadalupe despite his bishop's skepticism;
* Father Isaac Jogues and his companions,
enduring martyrdom in their quest to evangelize native Americans;
* Father Maximilian Kolbe, laying down his
life to spare a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz; and
* the four women missionaries who were
killed brutally by the enforcers of the repressive regime in El Salvador
because they stood up for the disenfranchised poor.
Those and so many other examples serve to
illustrate that the problems and tensions we face are not necessarily
the most serious of all time, but only seem so because we have not
experienced the problems, challenges and crises of other periods in
Therefore, we must face the present and the
future not with fear and apprehension, and not with timidity,
indifference or complacency, but with hope and optimism.
That hope and optimism come from knowing
that we are God's people and that the Lord will never abandon us, but
will always be present to us and give us the guidance, insights,
strength and motivation we need to develop effective ministerial and
pastoral responses to meet the challenges of our day.
Please keep the "Called to be
Church" pastoral planning process in your prayers, and be willing
to offer your insights and perspectives when the opportunity arises. I
am convinced that the more input there is, the better the plan will be.