Journey of Faith aims to create vibrant “families” of parishes
February 21, 2022
The numbers are eye opening, and the road ahead challenging.
A projected 24% decline in numbers of priests over the next 10 years, only 22% of Catholics in the pews for weekend Masses, and shifting populations in both rural and urban areas – all resulting in imbalances that threaten the long-term viability of parishes and schools.
Priests of the archdiocese came together Feb. 14-15 to examine and discuss the hard realities of how to serve the pastoral needs of their flocks while helping parishes remain vibrant and blossom into missional communities spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.
During the archdiocese’s winter clergy conference in Schuyler, priests were introduced to a planning process that aims to realign parishes, schools, priest assignments and other resources to meet the needs of both the faithful and their priests into the future.
This effort, titled “Journey of Faith: A Pastoral Planning Process to Prepare Us for the Future,” invites the Catholic faithful to take part in discussions and planning for how to best address the imbalances that currently exist and design a new model of parish life.
“We’re trying to promote the flourishing of communities … and some of our communities are too small to provide access to all the Church has to offer,” with decreasing numbers of lay people and priests, said Father Scott Hastings, the archdiocese’s vicar for clergy and pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Springfield. “We simply do not have the inputs to maintain our current system.”
Aside from the operational challenges these trends present, the overarching concern is how to carry out the “big goal” introduced in 2020 – that of helping every parish become a missional community.
“The flourishing of the Church is hamstrung by a structure which does not support mission. Everything (we do) has to be at the service of that goal,” Father Hastings said.
Maintaining that structure with shrinking numbers of priests hinders evangelization efforts, he said.
‘STRUCTURED FOR A DIFFERENT TIME’
“Really, our Church is structured for a different time,” said Phil Lasala, director of Pastoral Planning for the archdiocese.
“It’s kind of stunning to realize that the population of many of our rural areas is at or below 1890 levels,” he said. “And meanwhile, we see here in Omaha a significant increase in population.”
Currently, 104 priests serve the 139 parishes in the Omaha archdiocese, with seven priests serving outside the archdiocese. With projected retirements and assuming an average of two ordinations each year, the total number is anticipated to fall to 84 priests by 2032 and 80 by 2040.
Creating realistic workloads for priests in both urban and rural parishes is essential in order to prevent burnout, Father Hastings said.
Over the past three years, some rural and urban parishes have already joined together in groupings served by one pastor and one or more associate pastors, and with a sharing of resources. Journey of Faith will build on this model, Lasala said.
It will facilitate sharing of resources and economies of scale, with staffs that are more centralized and working together, he said, “working in more coordinated and collaborative ways to achieve the mission.”
“That will provide an opportunity for priestly fraternity, for priests to work together and, whenever possible, promote deeper collaboration among parishes within a group, or family,” he said.
Father Hastings emphasized that no decisions have been made, except that changes must begin. “We have to move in this direction,” he said. “Either we change or we will have structural collapse.”
In a video introducing the Journey of Faith process, Archbishop George J. Lucas said: “It seems that this is a moment when we really are asked to take stock of what’s very important and essential to our life together, but also where are we being called to move in some new directions.”
“This is a pilgrimage, we might say, that’s being guided by the Holy Spirit, and it’s going to be more fruitful the more of us who understand why we’re doing what we’re doing and who are willing to participate,” he said.
Journey of Faith will be implemented in four phases. Phase 1, initial consultation and drafting, began in December and included research, drafting of initial models of collaboration and proposed parish groupings (or “families”), and initial discussion during the mid-February clergy conference.
Phase 2 will involve two rounds of listening and planning sessions around the archdiocese, active participation at the parish level with pastors and local planning teams, and drafting and redrafting of proposed plans, with Archbishop Lucas finalizing the plans by year end.
Phase 3 will begin the initial transition to the new reality during the first half of 2023, with implementation, in waves (Phase 4), beginning in July 2023.
FULFILLING OUR MISSION
“The mission of Jesus Christ has existed and remained the same for over 2,000 years,” said Calvin Mueller, head of coaching and rural engagement for the archdiocese. “In the same way that the early Church had to discern how to best do that for their time … here in 2022 we have to ask the same question – how is Christ asking us to fulfill our mission?”
“This work is certain to make all of us uncomfortable to some extent, because we’re stepping into something new,” he said.
But that’s why the archdiocese is stressing participation and open communication.
“We’re being very intentional about having high consultation involving not only our clergy, but involving the laity every step of the way,” Lasala said.
A website has been designed to introduce the planning process and provide up-to-date information as the process unfolds. Visit journeyoffaith.org for more information.
Mueller said he envisions the success of this process through a spiritual lens, given the broader goal of maintaining vibrant communities of faith capable of spreading the Gospel.
“This process provides an invitation and an opportunity for people to recognize the grace available to them through their baptism, to live as disciples and to seek and save the lost as Christ has instructed us.”
“It’s important to remember,” Lasala said, “that as long as we’re putting our trust in the Lord, taking this to God in prayer … despite the difficulties and whatever discomfort or disappointment there might be, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’ll achieve something good in the end.”