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
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.
The question of women priests raises
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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."
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
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.
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
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
* to proclaim Jesus Christ and his Good
News of hope, healing, forgiveness and unconditional love to all we
* 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.
* 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
* the call God extended to that vulnerable
and frightened Nazarene teenage virgin to become the mother of the
* 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.