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Questions and answers on 'Called to be Church'

Called to be Church, our pastoral planning process to ensure the viability and vitality of the Church of Albany in the early years of the 21st century, has been underway for 18 months. All 165 parishes in our diocese have been involved.

Our 39 local planning groups, each comprised of participants from several parishes, have met many times. Members have gotten to know each other, familiarized themselves with pastoral activities in each other's parishes, and reviewed the mission of the Church in the areas of prayer and worship, evangelization, faith formation, Christian service and stewardship.

They have increased their understanding of the issues of personnel, finances, and shifting demographics that must be addressed as this process unfolds.

This month, these groups will embark on the most difficult phase of this endeavor: making specific recommendations about the future of the 165 parishes in our 14-county Diocese.

In my September 2007 column, I announced that I would conduct seven regional meetings to hear firsthand the concerns, fears and hopes of the participants in this challenging endeavor. I have completed these meetings, and found that some questions and concerns surfaced at almost every one of them.

In this column, I will address some of these questions and concerns. They are complex questions, and complete responses would require many pages; however, I hope the following will provide a flavor.


"In light of the priest shortage, why can't we consider married priests and women priests?"

We have had married priests in the Church historically. Most of the Apostles were married. For the first 12 centuries of the Church, we had married priests in the Latin Church, and this tradition has continued in the Eastern Church.

More recently, the Latin Church has allowed married clergy from other Christian traditions who have entered into full communion with the Latin Church to be ordained and remain married. So, while priestly celibacy is a sacred and venerable tradition in the Latin Church, it is not of the essence of priesthood and, thus, could be changed.

As recently as 2005, however, at the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, this question of married priests was discussed. The Synod Fathers concluded that a change in the current practice is not warranted.

Women priests?

The question of women priests raises different issues.

Historically, we have had an all-male priesthood. However, with our growing understanding about gender equality and the roles women exercise throughout society, at least in the west, as well as the fact that 80 percent of Church ministry in the United States is now being exercised by women, some have questioned the historic reasons given to exclude women from the ordained priesthood.

Is the Church's practice of ordaining only males to the priesthood more the result of the social and cultural factors present in the early centuries of Church history, wherein women generally did not exercise a public role in the community, or is it a matter of God's will that is normative for all time? 

Many Scriptural scholars contend that the New Testament is silent on this issue. However, the longstanding history and practice of the Church, coupled with theological reflection about the priest acting sacramentally in the person of Christ, has led to the theological conclusion that the Church is not authorized to ordain other than males. This teaching of the Church was articulated most recently by Pope John Paul II in his 1994 apostolic letter, "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis."

Slow process

Further, change comes slowly in the Church. In a global faith community where there are so many cultural and social differences between north and south, east and west, it can take prolonged periods before consensus is achieved about major change.

The bottom line is that while the issue of married priests in the Latin Church and women priests will undoubtedly continue to be discussed and debated, these proposals are not a possibility for the foreseeable future and thus cannot be considered as the source of priestly availability in our current Called to be Church pastoral planning process.

Underlying the questions about married and women priests, at least partially, is the assumption that such changes would increase the pool of candidates for priesthood, which has declined by more than 30 percent.

It should be noted, however, that many Christian denominations which have married clergy and women clergy are experiencing similar difficulties to our own in attracting candidates and in filling their pastoral vacancies.


"What about importing priests from other countries or attracting more religious order priests to serve in our Diocese?"

Over the years, our Diocese has been blessed by the service of priests coming from other countries. Especially during the period of the great immigration to the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries, priests from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, France and Canada came with the immigrants to serve their pastoral and spiritual needs.

After World War II, we were graced by a number of priests from behind the Iron Curtain who were either displaced by the war or not allowed to function in their homeland.

Presently, we have 15 priests in our Diocese who were ordained in Ireland, Italy, India, Poland, Great Britain, Pakistan, Ghana and the Philippines. So we are open to having priests from other nations serve in our Diocese.


Two important factors must be taken into account in receiving these priests:

* During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II cautioned bishops in developed countries like our own against recruiting priests from underdeveloped nations, since these priests are needed to evangelize and attend to the spiritual needs in their own homelands.

Presently, there is a boom in vocations in Africa, South America and parts of Asia. However, even with these increases, the ratio of priests to Catholics still remains much higher in many of these areas than in the U.S. In parts of South America, for example, there is only one priest for every 30,000 Catholics, and Mass in some parishes is celebrated once a month or less.

We in the U.S. should not seek to address our need for ordained ministers at the expense of other faith communities where the need is even greater.

* Second, in order to minister effectively, it is important that priests from other nations be able to communicate clearly and fluently, and that they have an in-depth understanding of our culture.

Some priests from other countries come from agrarian societies with a different experience of ministerial roles, gender relationships and societal expectations than exist in the U.S. If these priests are not properly prepared for pastoral ministry in our contemporary milieu, the experience could be detrimental both for the priests themselves and our people.

Religious communities in the U.S. face the same vocation shortage which dioceses are experiencing. In the past decade, two religious communities which have served in our Diocese for many years have withdrawn altogether because of their dwindling numbers, and three religious communities have either reduced their commitment or informed the Diocese they will not be able to send a new priest once the current pastor retires or is transferred.

In short, there is no "magic wand" solution to resolve the present crisis in vocations to the ordained priesthood.


"Why does the Diocese not do more to promote vocations to the priesthood or religious life?"

The Diocese has assigned two priests, Revs. James Walsh and David LeFort, and one woman religious, Sister Rosemary Cuneo, CR, to vocation ministry. There is also a diocesan Vocations Awareness Council and deanery vocations teams staffed by Sister Rosemary. Most religious communities have their own vocation teams, as well.

We have conducted a variety of approaches to attract candidates including:

* the "Called by Name" program,

* "Shadow a Priest Day,"

* discernment groups,

* high school and confirmation retreats,

* an enhanced website,

* a blog featuring a seminarian's journal and, most recently,

* an outreach to young adults through paid commercials on WVSC, ESPN and during Notre Dame and New York Giants football games.

I am sure there is always more that can be done, but we have been making major efforts to invite our youth, and not so young, to consider the priesthood and religious life.

Assured that God continues to extend the call to the priesthood and religious life, I believe what is most needed at this juncture in history is the fostering of a culture of vocations wherein everyone in the Church -- bishop, priests, deacons, religious and laypeople -- reaches out and encourages men and women to consider ordained and vowed leadership roles in the Church. This encouragement is particularly important for parents.

I underscore this point because almost every candidate for the priesthood or religious life I've encountered in the past few decades has experienced some parental opposition or less than enthusiastic encouragement from family and friends.


Parents want their children to be happy. Although a recent Time magazine poll revealed that of all the occupations surveyed, priests are the most happy people in their vocational choice, the myth persists that the priesthood is not a rewarding and fulfilling life. The same is true with regard to religious life.

Further, as family size declines, there is the concern of many parents and family members about having grandchildren and perpetuating the family name. If we are to reverse the current shortage of vocations to the ordained and vowed life, it is important that parents, family members, peers and the entire faith community be inviting, affirming and supportive of someone discerning such a call.


"Why do priests have to retire?"

Church law states that pastors are to submit their resignation at age 75. In our Diocese, retirement for priests is optional at age 70. At these stages of life, priests have been serving in ministry for between 45 and 50 years. Nearly all their contemporaries have retired a decade or so earlier.

Further, the use of the term retirement with respect to priests needs qualification. While priests resign their pastorate and other administrative responsibilities at 75 or 70, priests do not resign from ministry. 

Indeed, without the generous pastoral availability of our "retired" priests as regular sacramental ministers on weekends and the assistance they provide on weekdays for daily Mass, funerals, weddings and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we simply could not meet the spiritual needs of our people.

Presently, all the retired priests residing in our Diocese who are not impaired by reasons of health serve on a regular basis. During these years of "senior service," all their ministry is directly sacramental and pastoral, as they are no longer responsible for administration, finances and facility management or for attending parish or diocesan meetings.

The selfless dedication and ongoing commitment of our retired priests are both extraordinary and inspirational.


"Is pastoral planning unique in the Diocese of Albany?"

Every diocese in New York State and throughout the entire northeast is undergoing some form of pastoral planning. If only a few dioceses were facing the challenges of declining vocations or lower Church attendance, it might be attributable to an individual bishop's leadership or to economic problems. When the same challenges are so widespread, however, it is clear that we are dealing with a systemic issue.

Actually, our Diocese of Albany was one of the first in the country to begin pastoral planning in the early 1970's, under the leadership of my predecessor, Bishop Edwin Broderick.

Over the past 35 years, there has been the closure, merger or consolidation of 42 parishes in the Diocese. There has also been the construction of 15 new churches and the major renovation of over 60 parish churches.

We had a major pastoral planning initiative in the mid-1990s. The present Called to be Church process is building upon the criteria for vital and viable parish communities outlined in the 1990 document, "Our Faith and Our Future."

Unique model

The Albany Diocese's planning model is different than those of some other dioceses in the state and the northeast in that it is a "bottom-up" process. In some dioceses, for example, decisions about closures or reconfigurations are made by the bishop solely, or based upon the recommendations of a diocesan advisory body appointed by the Bishop.

In our Diocese, we have asked each pastor or parish life director and representatives from every parish to meet with other pastoral leaders in their cluster to provide recommendations for reconfiguration of structures, mass schedules and pastoral services.

I am convinced that the more input, involvement and ownership we receive from the grassroots level, where people know the geography, travel patterns and immediate circumstances, the better the final product will be.

No one likes change, especially when it comes to one's spiritual home or faith community. But the purpose of the Called to be Church process is to ensure the continued mission of the Church in the light of dramatically changing circumstances in the wider society in which the Church lives.


"Why go through the motions of having a pastoral planning process when the Bishop already knows what the plan is?"

There is always the myth that "a secret plan" exists -- that I have a master design in my drawer which will be unveiled at the end of the process no matter what recommendations emerge from the planning groups.

I can only assure you that there is absolutely no truth to this misconception. I may not be the wisest or most visionary bishop in the world, but I am not a sadist. I would not waste people's valuable time, effort and energies in a planning process if the results had already been predetermined.

While we don't have a master plan, we do have a process: a process that must take into account personnel, fiscal, institutional and demographic realities. We also have criteria for vital and viable parish communities.

I am grateful for the opportunity I had the past few months to meet with approximately 1,000 planning group members and heard their insights and concerns. I am encouraged by the level of energy and engagement they bring to this role.

Coming up

Over the next six months, our planning groups must look at the realities they face and the criteria they must meet and, based upon their best judgment, make recommendations for the closures, mergers, or greater linkages of parish communities.

Planning group members must assess:

* whether parishes which were needed at one point in time are still needed today;

* how many masses are required in given geographic areas in light of fewer priests;

* what buildings need to be maintained to fulfill the mission;

* what fiscal and personnel resources will be necessary; and

* what can we do better inter-parochially than as an individual parish?

These recommendations must be realistic, constructive and feasible. In other words, they must be based not upon nostalgia or wishful thinking, but on present facts and foreseeable realities.

Each planning group must submit recommendations and plans to my office by June 30. All recommendations will be reviewed by our Pastoral Planning Review Commission, which will assess whether the recommendations and plans submitted have addressed realistically and constructively the specified realities and criteria.

If the planning recommendations do not do so, or if the planning group is unable to come to consensus, the Review Commission will return the recommendations to the planning group for revisions. If the group cannot advance further, the Review Commission will make its own recommendations to my office.

I will make final decisions on all recommendations by January 1, 2009. While the plan will be finalized at that time, its implementation will be phased in over a two- or three-year time span.

I again urge all within our Diocese to pray for the success of this endeavor. I believe Called to be Church offers us a golden opportunity to renew and revitalize the mission of our Diocese:

* to proclaim Jesus Christ and his Good News of hope, healing, forgiveness and unconditional love to all we encounter; and

* to do so as servant leaders, with our presence, gracious hospitality, kindness, compassion, selfless service and collaborative spirit as hallmarks of our ministry.

This salvific mission and this servant ministry must be the motivating, animating and sustaining influence in all that we do in Called to be Church and beyond.

The challenge of this undertaking may appear monumental. We may be tempted to ask, "Why us?" and "Why now?" Yet the history of salvation makes it clear that this is the way God works: assigning herculean tasks to unlikely servants like ourselves.

Historical challenges


* the demands God placed upon Abraham, calling him in his old age to be the patriarch of a new people whose descendents would be more numerous than the stars;

* the charge God gave to Moses to lead the Chosen People out of the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land -- and then, after 40 years of putting up with the moaning and grumbling of his contentious flock, to be denied the ultimate prize when the goal was in plain sight;

* the call God extended to that vulnerable and frightened Nazarene teenage virgin to become the mother of the long-promised Messiah;

* the expectations that were placed upon that bedraggled band of 12 whom Jesus chose to be His Apostles, to proclaim the Good News to the ends of the earth; and

* the challenge accepted by John McCloskey, our first bishop, to develop a diocese that stretched from the Pennsylvania border to Canada, from Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence seaway and from the capital district to the outskirts of Rochester -- with horse and buggy transportation, with few priests and even fewer resources from a largely immigrant flock.

We may feel as overwhelmed by the unsettling challenges that confront us as these predecessors of ours must have felt. However, we must resist the temptation to yield to discouragement or defeat. Just as God did not abandon our ancestors in the faith, neither will God abandon us.

With God's guidance and your prayerful support, I am confident this renewal of our mission can be achieved. May it be so.



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