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Journey of Faith reaches key milestone: plans submitted, being evaluated

As the Archdiocese of Omaha embarks on the next stage of its Journey of Faith, parishes will be preparing for changes – some more significant than others.

Plans for how they will adapt to a new reality of parish life as families of parishes – sharing priests, ministries and operations – have been submitted to the archdiocese’s Pastoral Planning Office and are now being reviewed.

The Journey of Faith planning process began in late 2021 to address the projected decline in numbers of priests, falling Mass attendance and shifting populations in both rural and urban areas.

With parishes grouped into “families” of from two to 12 parishes working together, each plan addresses how those parishes will work to flourish and become missional communities while furthering the archdiocese’s pastoral vision of one Church: encountering Jesus, equipping disciples and living mercy.

And the planning, conducted by priests, deacons and laity from each parish within a family, working together in pastoral planning teams, reflects the unique histories and personalities of each parish, said Phil LaSala, director of pastoral planning for the archdiocese.

As plans have been submitted leading up to a Nov. 15 deadline, they are reviewed on a rolling basis by members of the Pastoral Planning Office before being given to Archbishop George J. Lucas for his review. 

“As I begin to review the planning templates submitted by our families of parishes, I am struck by the amount of prayer and work that has been given to the Journey of Faith process so far,” said the archbishop.

NEXT STEPS

As parish families have been submitting their plans, the goal has been to send back a response within three weeks of submission, LaSala said. Responses may include “tentative approval,” “tentative approval with changes” or “more discussion needed.”

“We’ll prioritize the ones that we know are going to have more complexity associated with them,” he said.

But, he added, parishes are asked to temporarily “take a step away” from the Journey of Faith process to allow the faithful to experience the Advent and Christmas seasons before resuming their work after the holidays.

If changes are needed, revised plans are due by Jan. 31, with final approvals coming in February.

January also begins an information sharing period, when pastors are asked to communicate their proposed plans to their congregations, LaSala said. Implementation is to begin no later than July 1, 2023.

“The Holy Spirit is working through all of us in different ways, and we want to allow for that space and to be open to receiving the Holy Spirit working through us, among us, between us,” he said, acknowledging that a number of families have been struggling with some very difficult decisions.

Significant among these has been the issue of Mass times and locations. There may be up to 20 parishes where weekend Masses will no longer be offered, LaSala said.

In these parishes, the churches might still be used for baptisms, weddings, First Friday devotions, eucharistic adoration and other such uses, he said.

“Where there’s a cessation of a Sunday Mass, there’ll be grieving that will happen there,” LaSala said. “And that transition from what people have now to this new reality will be difficult.

“But what we hope is that accompanying one another through this transition we can, in our new family, build something that is life-giving, that’s of God, so that our Catholic community can continue to flourish.”

The archbishop said he understands the grieving that some parishioners may feel as changes are implemented. He noted his own sense of loss seeing the parishes where he was baptized and grew up, schools he attended and where he taught, and those where he served as a young priest either close or merge.

PARISH EXPERIENCES

Some parishes that previously joined together under the leadership of one pastor have already gained experience dealing with change and in bringing ministries, administrations and parishioners together as one family.

One such parish family is led by Father Patrick McLaughin, pastor of Sacred Heart in Norfolk, St. Leonard in Madison, St. Peter in Stanton and St. Patrick in Battle Creek.

Father McLaughlin said these parishes were already working together and pursuing initiatives to become missional communities in support of the archdiocese’s pastoral vision.

“It was very clear that, under the archbishop’s guidance, we were moving in the direction to be missional, united with Jesus and each other,” Father McLaughlin said, “and we’ve been doing that since we first were grouped as a family of parishes in 2019.”

And with only one additional parish – St. Joseph in Pierce – joining this family, planning was able to move quickly allowing the family to submit its preliminary plan in July.

Some realignment of staff will begin in January, Father McLaughlin said.

More typical may be the experiences of parishes led by Father Kevin Vogel, administrator of St. Jane Frances de Chantal in Randolph, St. Mary of the Seven Dolors in Osmond and St. Joseph in Pierce.

With St. Joseph Parish joining the Norfolk area family, and the other two parishes joining with five additional parishes in an area spanning 70 miles, this parish family, like many, is dealing with some difficult issues.

“The major changes are in two different levels,” Father Vogel said, including “the fact of having two priests serving the seven parishes … compared to, right now, the seven parishes (being) shared amongst four priests.”

“And, certain connections amongst parishes will be disconnected and then reconnected with the new family of parishes,” he said. “So that’s going to be a big change.”

Other planning challenges have revolved around Mass schedules, with the possibility of some churches no longer having a weekend Mass, along with numerous administrative changes, he said.

“The other level, which is even more important,” Father Vogel said, “and this applies across the entire archdiocese, is it’s more of a change in the way we understand what it means to be Catholic.

“We have to change from looking inward at ourselves and how we can maintain ourselves in the way that we’ve always done things, to actually going forth and realizing that we’ve been sent on mission by Jesus to go and share the Good News of the Gospel. As Catholics, we haven’t always thought in those terms.”

“We are being invited to imagine our parishes in new ways,” Archbishop Lucas said, “with the focus on our becoming missionary disciples, for our own sake, and so that we can lead others to Jesus Christ. I am confident that the Holy Spirit, who has guided our efforts so far, will continue to bless us with light and peace as we move ahead on the Journey of Faith.”