By Barb Arland-Fye
First dates can be surprising, which was the experience of some parishes gathered this week to consider who they’ll partner with for planning purposes. At the first regional meeting held Feb. 27 at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf, a few parishes questioned why they had been paired with others.
The diocese’s 80 parishes were grouped according to preferences stated in written reports to the Diocesan Planning Commission as well as the 2005 Living the Faith planning document, explained commission member Sister Laura Goedken, OP. Groupings may be re-configured as parishes’ designated leaders work to establish Local Area Planning Committees, said Ruth Skeens, the commission’s co-chair.
But the courtship process needs to move along. A preliminary plan that meets priest availability and builds collaboration and cooperation between parishes is due to the commission by May 31.
Within a decade, the diocese projects that just 41 active priests will be available for parish ministry, 18 fewer priests than today. Despite the shortfall, Bishop Martin Amos is committed to ensuring the weekly celebration of the Eucharist for the diocese’s people. Reflecting on the sacrament at each of four regional meetings, he said:
“At Eucharist, we take what we have been given — wheat and grapes transformed by human work into bread and wine — and offer them back to God as symbols of all that we are and do. We join in Christ’s own self-offering back to the Father. Those same gifts, transformed into Christ himself, are then given back to us, and we are transformed. And transformed, we are sent out to sanctify the world. This powerful dynamic of gift lies at the heart of what we do at Eucharist. That is why communion services and Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, as prayerful as those rites might be, are not Eucharist.”
Bishop Amos emphasized that “a eucharistic community not only celebrates the Eucharist and believes in the Eucharist; it lives the Eucharist.”
That’s why the planning process is so important. “Certainly, I do not want to close any church — why would I want to do that? At the same time, Eucharist is not a building — as noble and sacred and treasured as that building might be,” the bishop said.
Just six years from retirement age for bishops, the Davenport Diocese’s shepherd said he could avoid anxiety by leaving the planning process to his successor. “But that would not be responsible leadership on my part nor would that be good for the diocese. And so, I have invited you to join me in the process of discernment about our future as Church in southeastern Iowa.”
Significant trends need to be addressed he said. “The planning process isn’t just about priests. It’s also about parishioners and demographics and society.” Some 44 years ago the diocese recorded 3,200 infant baptisms; in 2008, less than half that number. Nearly 1,000 parish weddings were recorded in 1967, compared with about half that many in 2008.
Bishop Amos said the diocese needs to be conscious about serving its farm families. “We have 12 parishes with fewer than 100 households, yet many are vibrant eucharistic communities.”
And, he noted, the Hispanic population in the last decade has increased in some counties in the diocese by 100, 200 and even 300 percent. During an exercise to gauge parish leaders’ feelings about the planning process, a Hispanic woman at the Bettendorf meeting said she’s glad the diocese recognizes the importance of serving Hispanics. Being able to attend Spanish Mass is of great value to the Hispanic community, she added.
A man who identified himself as “mad” during the exercise said he thinks the diocese ought to have more vocations (it has 10 seminarians now). He also said other dioceses with orthodox bishops seem to have more vocations. Bishop Amos responded that the Davenport Diocese has a full-time vocations director, Father Marty Goetz, who works diligently to promote vocations to the priesthood. In terms of orthodoxy, Bishop Amos said he sees himself as a centrist, but that all of the U.S. bishops — including him — are orthodox.
Another man asked about bringing in priests from foreign countries to help with the shortfall here. The Davenport Diocese has nine foreign-born priests presently serving in the diocese. But the bishop said bringing in more foreign-born priests is not a solution. Cultural and language issues need to be addressed, along with the even greater shortage of priests in many foreign countries.
Parish partnerships can be as simple as “three or four parishes being able to share a full-time youth minister, a full-time director of religious education, a business manager,” the bishop said. The diocese has four parish life administrators who are doing a wonderful job, he added.
“I know that this sounds like an easy solution for many parishes. Just hire a deacon or lay person to administer the parish and leave us alone.” But a priest supervisor will have ultimate responsibility for the parish and that priest or another needs to be assigned as a sacramental minister, Bishop Amos cautioned.
“Our goal is to develop a plan or plans based on current demographics and projections that will enable us to continue to have a Catholic presence and life-giving parishes throughout the Diocese of Davenport.”