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Bishop assesses 'Called to be Church' at midway point of planning process

Fifteen months ago, we began an important phase of pastoral planning in our Diocese, titled "Called to be Church."

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 resources.

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 future-oriented.

Common effort

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 people.


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 grassroots parishioners.

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.

Final steps

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 so far:

* 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 rearing;

* 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 oppose legislation.

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 collaboration.

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.

Letting go

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 constructively.

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.

Heroic people

The history of salvation is replete with the stories of heroic people responding to the challenging needs of their time:

* Abraham, faced with sacrificing his son, Isaac;

* 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 virginity;

* 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.

Being optimistic

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 Church history.

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.



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