Planning for the mission
January 18, 2019
In this week’s interview, communications manager David Hazen asks Archbishop George J. Lucas about the direction of pastoral planning efforts in the archdiocese and how lay people can best respond to the challenges and changes that lie ahead.
Q: 2019 will see continued developments in the pastoral planning efforts that have been underway around the archdiocese. Could you help us understand what “pastoral planning” means and what challenges you are working to address?
We know very clearly – as Pope Francis keeps reminding us – that the only true disciples are missionary disciples. We want to be close to the Lord, but we also need to be ready for him to send us out, which he does at the end of every Mass, to share the light of the Gospel with our neighbors. Pastoral planning aims at helping us to do that better.
We see in some parts of the metro area and in many rural communities that the overall population is declining. We also know that the number of active priests is gradually declining.
It is easy then to fall into a defensive posture and say, “Well, how are we going to protect what we have? How are we going to keep our parish open and maintain what we have?” That really isn’t the attitude of the Gospel, which is always outgoing.
As we have been blessed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we need to think in terms of abundance. Our lives are overflowing with God’s gifts; there is plenty available for our own salvation, and plenty to share with our neighbors.
The world is very different from what it was when Jesus called the first disciples. It’s very different from what it was on Pentecost. And, while holding steadfast to the teachings of Jesus, the church has had to adapt to the conditions of every age in order to make Jesus known.
In my own imagination, I try to think about how we would act and how we could grasp this sense of mission if Jesus had just now gathered us and was sending us into the 23 counties of the Archdiocese of Omaha like the first disciples. It has become a kind of a slogan in the church these days, but it is an important one to pay attention to: We need to move from maintenance to mission.
It is not the Lord’s plan that we simply take care of what we have and make sure that we don’t lose it. Rather, Jesus gives us the mission of proclaiming the Gospel with our lives, with our teaching, with our resources, and to be aware of our neighbors who are waiting to hear the message of hope that the Gospel brings.
Q: The renewal of our sense of mission seems to rest in large part on a renewal of the lay vocation. In what way do you see that taking shape in our local church?
We have good priests, but we have fewer than we used to (even though we have more than the average diocese our size). Over the next five or 10 years the number of priests is going to continue to shrink, little by little. We look at that and ask, “What is the Lord showing us?”
We could be tempted to say that he is turning his back on us, and that even though he is asking us to live as his people, he is not really giving us what we need. Or we could recognize that he’s inviting us to experience more fully the variety of charisms in the church.
We’ve already begun some great efforts through the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis to help pastors develop leadership teams and to help identify and equip the leaders in parishes. Some are parish staff members, but many are not. They are people who are involved in the community, and who can be equipped to have a greater influence. They are willing to be formed and mentored by the pastor and to begin to take greater responsibility for the vitality of the parish.
I have seen firsthand how that’s happening in places in our archdiocese. I have heard the testimony of those who are being formed as leaders, and who have begun to experience parish life in a new and vibrant way.
Q: It is also likely that the number of pastor assignments is going to decrease in the next few years. Does this similarly present an opportunity for the priestly vocation to be lived in a new way?
A number of our priests are expressing a desire that they not be isolated in terms of their assignments. I’d like to think that there could be new ways to have our priests live and work together, especially when associate pastors are assigned to help a pastor who serves several parishes. It can be a more creative and supportive environment for them, which will then overflow into the lives of their parishioners.
Q: How can the faithful best respond to the challenges and changes ahead?
Prayer needs to be at the heart of all this and really the foundation of it. That’s where we need to begin together, to ask the Lord to help us understand what his will is for us. So, trust that he’s not turning his back on us. He is God-with-us; he is with us through the power of the Holy Spirit and desires only good for us and for the church.
If we stay close to him, we’ll be part of the good, even if we can’t understand exactly what it is and how it will look. We should continually go back to him and ask, “Lord, what’s your will for our parish? What’s your will for our cooperation with the parish next door? What’s your will for how I can use my gifts to further the mission of the church?”
Those prayers will be answered. He doesn’t usually shout, but he does make his will clear as we pray together about it in our parish communities and across the archdiocese. It is a powerful request that the Lord will receive lovingly, and he will respond in a way that helps us move with his will for the mission of the church.