By Celine Klosterman
SOLON — As Catholics in southeast Iowa plan for a future with fewer priests, many parish leaders Sept. 19 expressed optimism and gratitude for the opportunity to offer input.
Many shared feelings of fear, anger and sadness as well during a meeting held at St. Mary Parish in Solon to explain and begin the parish planning process. The gathering, which also included parishes’ annual corporate board meeting, was the first of seven taking place throughout the Davenport Diocese until Oct. 3.
“This is an extremely important time for us together,” Bishop Martin Amos told about 175 lay and ordained parish leaders. Things have changed since the 2005 Living the Faith Task Force planned for the diocese’s future, he said. From 2010 to 2020, the number of clergy younger than 70, retirement age, and available for parish ministry is projected to drop from 59 to 40. Things will continue changing, and this parish planning process probably won’t be the last, Bishop Amos said. He urged parishes to participate and assured those present that the diocese has no “pre-conceived plan.”
Father Marty Goetz, the diocese’s vocations director, asked Catholics to pray for vocations; offer an example by living their faith; and encourage active, young parishioners to consider the priesthood, the diaconate or religious life. He said he’s willing to visit parishes and schools to speak about vocations.
Ruth Skeens, co-chair of the Diocesan Planning Commission (DPC) that is guiding the planning process, then asked parish leaders to split into groups based on the emotion they felt most strongly in reaction to news about the diocese’s future.
Most Catholics gathered by signs that read “Scared,” “Sad” or “Glad;” a handful joined by a poster marked “Mad.”
Parish leaders in the latter group voiced anger over the ban on female priests, the Western Church’s prohibition of married clergy and Pope Benedict XVI’s response to the sex-abuse crisis. One man lamented that parishes lose most of their youths after confirmation; another parishioner suggested Catholics should be more open to collaborating with Lutherans.
Members of the “scared” group shared fears that the Church they grew up in won’t be around for their children, that their parish won’t have a resident priest and that Catholics are leaving the Church because their needs aren’t being met.
Self-described “sad” parish leaders voiced disappointment in the difficulty of “breaking out” of the Church’s patriarchal structure, in the lack of grassroots input in the larger Church and in U.S. society’s focus on making money rather than serving others.
But one “glad” Catholic said he was encouraged by the number of people who, by attending the meeting, showed they care about the diocese’s future. Others said the diocese listens to parishioners and has great priests; the Church has survived much adversity; and Catholics now have an opportunity to demonstrate their faith to Protestants. Representatives of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City, which dedicated new churches last year, said their parishes have grown.
Planning commission background
Later, DPC co-chair Father Jim Vrba explained that the 14-member commission, which formed in January 2009, includes seven lay people, three priests, a deacon, two diocesan staffers and three members of the Living the Faith Task Force. Planning guidelines include a call for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest to be used only in an emergency; for every parish to have a pastor assigned to it in some way; for a priest to celebrate no more than three Masses per weekend; for parishes to hire professional ministers accordingly; for proposals for recruitment, formation and support of future priests and other ministers; and for all proposals to be faithful to Church teaching.
In the future, most parishes will share a priest, Fr. Vrba said.
Each of the diocese’s 80 parishes is currently expected to meet twice by Nov. 24 to identify the parishes it will most likely collaborate with and establish two representatives for a Local Area Planning Committee. The DPC hopes to present a final plan to Bishop Amos by Advent 2011.
Several parish leaders voiced concerns about the timeline. They said parishes are busy organizing fall festivals and coordinating efforts for the Annual Diocesan Appeal, which kicks off this weekend, and can’t realistically meet a Nov. 24 deadline.
The commission will revisit the timeline, said DPC member Jude West, a member of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City. He also noted plans already have been delayed because of the diocese’s capital campaign, which recently wrapped up.
Later, one Catholic asked about the possibility of collaborating with parishes in a neighboring diocese. But Fr. Vrba said it’s easier to stay within diocesan lines. He noted that while his parish of St. Mary’s in Solon isn’t far from St. John the Baptist Parish in Mount Vernon, which is in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, St. John the Baptist is already part of a cluster in that archdiocese.
Another parishioner suggested the diocese’s chief focus should be on promoting religious vocations. Fr. Vrba responded that even if several men entered the seminary tomorrow, they wouldn’t be ordained for eight years. “We still need to plan for the immediate future.”
Parishes to meet individually
This fall, each parish is expected to hold two meetings to which parish council members, commission members, finance council members, staff and all interested parishioners are invited.
At the first meeting, Catholics will consider their parish’s strengths and weaknesses in the major ministry areas, including liturgy, faith formation, social action, administration and finance, family life and church life. The evaluation will be used to discern how parishes might best complement each other in these major areas of ministry. Catholics will also consider pastoral needs in their planning area.
In the second meeting, Catholics will begin a process of visioning how their parish might collaborate with neighboring parishes. Each parish will also name two lay representatives to serve on a Local Area Planning Committee.
For questions to address and outlines for the meetings, see the Local Area Parish Planning Process booklet available at www.davenportdiocese.org/planning.