Journey of Faith progress: Next stage set to begin
March 17, 2023
As one leg of the journey ends, another begins – one that’s already bringing into focus a new vision of parish life for the Catholic faithful in northeast Nebraska.
The planning portion of the Archdiocese of Omaha’s Journey of Faith concluded with the final approval of pastoral plans from families of parishes by Archbishop George J. Lucas during February and March.
Next begins the transition toward implementing those plans, with individual parishes and archdiocesan schools working collaboratively as larger “families,” to become missional communities reaching out to others with the Good News of the Gospel.
The Journey of Faith process, which began in late 2021, addresses several challenging trends for the Church: the declining numbers of priests, falling Mass attendance and shifting populations in both urban and rural areas.
Localized planning teams made up of clergy and laity from each family of parishes developed and submitted their plans for how to organize parish life in light of the current reality and to align resources to remain viable and enable priests to flourish while avoiding burnout.
Elizabeth Dutcher of St. John the Baptist Parish in Pender served on the planning team from the 12 eastern Nebraska parishes that now make up one family.
Dutcher described the planning process as “shaking things up in the Church,” helping parishes reevaluate their ministries and programs, and how they welcome new members.
“It’s made us look at ourselves and ask, ‘What can we do better and improve upon what we’re doing and how we are spreading Christ to others?’ she said.
Archbishop George J. Lucas applauded the work done by Dutcher and many others across the archdiocese to this point.
“I’m really grateful for the participation of clergy and laity around the archdiocese in this Journey of Faith process so far,” Archbishop Lucas said.
“As I read through the planning templates, it struck me how seriously people have taken the challenges before us and how many people have participated in the planning for our families of parishes.”
“We are approaching this Journey of Faith from a perspective of hope for the future,” he said. “We know that the Lord has good things in mind for his holy people in the Church, and we don’t doubt his promises to be with the Church until the end of time.”
Acknowledging the difficult decisions many families of parishes labored over, the archbishop said: “We know from our experience in recent decades that we are in a time of diminishment. It’s important that if we are going to continue the mission of the Church, and for the mission to thrive, that we structure ourselves and position ourselves in a way that enables us to follow the commission of Jesus to take the Gospel out into the world.”
DIFFICULT DECISIONS/POSITIVE FRUITS
Despite the difficult decisions faced by many families of parishes, including, in certain cases, the elimination or reduction in the number of weekend Masses at some churches, parishes are already seeing positive fruits, said Father Mark Beran, pastor of four parishes – St. Augustine in Winnebago, St. Cornelius in Homer, St. Joseph in Walthill and Our Lady of Fatima in Macy.
“People are having a broader sense of the Church, beyond that of their own church,” said Father Beran, who served as convener of the planning team for the 12 eastern Nebraska parishes that now make up one family.
He credited the planning team, which included Dutcher, for taking the broad view and asking, “How do we best serve the people in our area?”
“People here have a passion for their churches,” he said. “They wanted to protect their church, but they also knew it was more important to see the bigger picture. How do we not just hold onto what we have, but instead, how do we imagine turning that into something different, to truly have our parishes flourish, not just survive?”
And the family of parishes is beginning to examine how to optimize staff, record keeping, communication and other administrative functions, along with ministries and programs such as religious education.
But some of the changes will be more painfully felt than others.
One parish in that family, St. Michael in South Sioux City, will still be served by its own pastor and associate pastor because of the larger Catholic population there. The other 11 parishes will share one pastor and one associate pastor, Father Beran said. And of the 11, only six will have a weekend Mass.
The reactions of parishioners to the parish family’s plan has been “all over the board,” Father Beran said. “Some are still grieving while others are excited about the opportunities for our parishes to flourish.”
“We need to invite God into that grief and pain.”
Although families of parishes are expected to implement their plans beginning July 1, they may begin their transitions immediately if they wish.
Omaha parishes St. Leo the Great, St. Pius X and St. Bernard are already beginning that process.
Father Michael Gadache, associate pastor of St. Pius X, who served as convener for the family, said St. Pius X and St. Leo had already been working together in various ways and adding one more parish to the family was not difficult.
But, as in most families of parishes, determining a Mass schedule was a challenge.
Although Masses remain the same at St. Leo, St. Bernard will eliminate one weekend Mass. And St. Pius X has already modified its Mass schedule, also eliminating one Mass, drawing mixed reactions. But people are adjusting, Father Gadache said.
It has also taken some time for members of the three parishes to come to an understanding of the expectations, he said. “Gradually it became clear what (Journey of Faith) is all about. The relationship that has existed already between St. Pius and St. Leo made it a bit easier to be able to continue to relate and walk together as a missional community.”
“We have a lot of activities that we are already doing together,” he said. “We have seen those areas of collaboration that will keep us as one family … like RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), … and other activities like Live Lent Together. Those are examples of what we can do together.”
Father Gadache said he is hopeful the three parishes can build on those current relationships and identify many more areas of collaboration “to live together as one family and missional Church.”
Father Beran cited the archdiocese’s pastoral vision of “One Church: Encountering Jesus, Equipping Disciples, Living Mercy” as setting the template for achieving that goal by working together and increasing evangelization efforts to bring more people into the Church.
“Everyone can see the decline in their churches and even the practice of their faith in their families … and I think behind that, everyone has a little bit of pain,” he said. “They want people to know God and the peace that comes from being part of the Catholic Church. That’s a desire that comes from God.”
“If we really want to renew the faith in our area, how do we set ourselves up as parishes, with what staff and support, to really help people in all of these communities to have their faith come alive and grow, and be able to share that with others? That’s what gets me excited,” he said.
A SPIRIT-LED PROCESS
The Journey of Faith has been a “spirit-led process,” said Phil LaSala, director of pastoral planning, who has guided the effort for the Omaha archdiocese.
Recognizing the hard decisions the process has required, LaSala characterized the process as smoother and more beautiful than they could have hoped.
“Everything we’re doing is in service of mission,” LaSala said. “The reason for these structural changes is to create fertile soil for mission.”
“We’re continuing to understand, as this is unfolding day by day, where the Lord is calling us in our archdiocese to spread the Gospel,” he said. “We’re at the beginning of something, and there’s a momentum that’s begun to build, which will continue through the work of the Holy Spirit and each of us to understand where the Lord is calling us.”
Archbishop Lucas expressed a similar confidence.
“The Holy Spirit is just as powerful now in the Church as the Spirit was at that first Pentecost,” the archbishop said. He encouraged the faithful to “call upon the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit being given to all the baptized.”
“We have every talent, every gift that we need to become a vibrant missional Church. We need only to put our trust in the Lord and believe that He’s going to give us what we need to move into a future that’s full of hope.”