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Pastoral planning in home stretch
Groups preparing recommendations for future of parishes
Assistant Editor

It's crunch time for "Called to be Church."

After more than a year of meetings and discussions, local planning groups (LPGs) for every parish in the Albany Diocese will spend the first half of 2008 creating recommendations for their parishes' futures.

"Status quo is not an option," reads the manual for this phase of the process, sent by diocesan officials to each LPG.

Time to choose

All parishes, the manual notes, must come up with recommendations to close, merge or at least link their parishes with others:

* A merger would mean that two or more parishes become one, sharing assets and liabilities;

* linked parishes would remain separate entities but might still share leadership, staff or programs.

One important criterion for whether a parish remains open is Mass attendance. The formula offered by the diocesan Pastoral Planning Office is this: If the total number of Catholics attending all weekend liturgies at a parish is less than its seating capacity, ending the use of that church must be considered.

Time to change

The need for such changes is due to several factors, including declines in vocations to religious life and active participation in the faith, and Catholic population shifts from cities to suburbs. The manual points out that even suburban parishes are "graying," with fewer active young Catholics replacing aging parishioners.

"We've clearly said 2007 was a discussion time," noted John Manning, director of the diocesan Office of Pastoral Planning. He called the past year "an opportunity for local leadership to engage in a relationship," building rapport and sharing information.

Topics discussed by LPGs during 2007 included evangelization, prayer and worship, lifelong faith formation, Christian advocacy and service, and growing leadership.

Time to decide

Now that all parishes have explored how well they're carrying out everything from liturgy to religious education under their current staffing patterns, Mr. Manning said, it's time to make recommendations for change.

Change will be required across the board, he added. Even parishes that have successfully fulfilled the mission of the Church in the Diocese so far can improve their use of staff and resources.

Mr. Manning gave the example of five parishes in a given area that may decide to have one, joint evangelization program, using one director and staff from all the parishes to cover their entire area.

"The most vital and viable parishes in the Diocese [still] need to link with each other, to collaborate and cooperate, and remain good stewards of our resources," he stated.

Time to let go

The director acknowledged that change will be difficult "emotionally and spiritually. People's instinct might be, 'This is the church in which I was baptized, where I was married, where I want to be buried from.'"

But "we can't keep 165 parishes functioning on our own. We do have to respond to that reality. We're trying to preserve the Eucharist, and we're coming to a point where [we need to ask:] 'Do we have Eucharist, or do we have all these worship sites?'"

Mr. Manning said that diocesan officials don't know how many parishes will be closed or merged when the Called to be Church process concludes.

"We don't have a plan," he stated, noting that, "knowing what the challenges are, [parishes] themselves will come up with the recommendations."

Time to conclude

By June 30, all parishes of the Diocese are required to have submitted their recommendations to the Diocese.

A Pastoral Planning Review Commission appointed by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard will then review the plans and either return them for revision or approve and send them on to the Bishop.

By January 2009, Bishop Hubbard will begin announcing reconfiguration plans. Mr. Manning noted that some parishes may close or merge in 2009, while some may continue working on collaborating with others until, for example, a pastor retires and the final change is made.

Implementing all the plans will probably take place over a three- to five-year period, he said.

Time to evolve

As uncertain a time as this is for the Albany Diocese, Mr. Manning pointed to the cities of Cohoes and Schenectady as examples of how change can be effected:

* In Cohoes, two town meetings have been held to share with all Catholics the reality that only two priests will be available to cover the town's five parishes in the future, and parishes there have already redone their Mass schedules to accommodate that reality;

* in Schenectady, seven "hill parishes" -- St. Adalbert's, St. Joseph's, St. Luke's, St. Paul the Apostle, Sacred Heart/St. Columba and Our Lady of Mount Carmel -- have begun cooperative efforts like joint prayer services and sharing pulpits.

In both cities, "people are beginning to recognize there is a need for change, and moving forward," said Mr. Manning.

Although Called to be Church may seem like a lengthy process, Mr. Manning called it "a natural evolution. In any organization, planning and change never cease, or you become obsolete."

(All eight Catholic dioceses in New York State are currently engaged in pastoral planning: Albany, Brooklyn, Buffalo, New York City, Ogdensburg, Rochester, Rockville Centre (Long Island) and Syracuse. In addition to the new Called to be Church manual, financial data on each parish, assembled by the diocesan Accounting Office, and data on Catholic schools have been sent to the LPGs for review.)



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