Bishop attends deacon convocation, speaks on impact of changing demographics

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WARWICK — More than 75 permanent deacons in the Diocese of Providence — with most of those who are married accompanied by their wives — along with several men currently part of the 12 recently admitted to candidacy for ordination to the permanent diaconate gathered on February 3 at the Radisson Airport Hotel for their annual convocation.

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin opened the event by leading the group in prayer before expressing his appreciation to the deacons for the service they provide and to the candidates for embarking on what will be a four-year process leading to their ordination to the permanent diaconate.

“We’re very grateful for the group we have and very proud of them,” the bishop said.

He then took to the floor to speak about the current state of the diocese, with a strong emphasis on the changing demographics of the local church, where the number of priests reaching retirement age is increasing rapidly and the ongoing focus on pastoral planning is more important than ever.

In the past eight years, 58 priests have left the active ministry — almost all through retirement, with others lost to leaves, departures or their passing.

At the same time, only 18 new priests have been ordained to replace them.

“So we’ve had a net loss of 40 priests in ministry in the last eight years. That’s very, very significant,” Bishop Tobin said.

This trend is expected to continue.

In June, four priests are scheduled to retire from active ministry, with one to be ordained before returning to Rome for another year of study.

Currently, the diocese has 14 seminarians enrolled across the spectrum of the eight years of formation required for ordination to the priesthood. Eight of those are studying theology, three are in pre-theology and three are in college.

“Every year, we are retiring four or five priests on average and every year we are ordaining one or two,” he said of the continuing trend of losing more priests from active ministry than can be replaced.

While everyone continues to pray for more men to pursue priestly vocations, pastoral planning officials are working to meet these challenges by actively working with parish representatives to ensure that the needs of the faithful are provided for in the most efficient manner possible.

With fewer people receiving the sacraments and going to Mass, financial challenges have deepened for parishes struggling to make ends meet. The declining number of priests available to provide pastoral leadership is another major factor in the decision to merge parishes, or in some cases, close churches altogether.

On education, the bishop noted that the 40 Catholic schools in the diocese (33 elementary and middle schools and seven high schools) serve approximately 11,500 students.

Here also, a change in demographics, with a decline in population of school-age children, is having a direct impact on education.

Bishop Tobin also praised the V Encuentro that involves the dioceses’ Hispanic and Latino parishes, although not exclusively, in a program leading up to the national Encuentro this summer in Texas.

“There’s been a marvelous process that our diocese has been involved in under the leadership of our Latino and Hispanic leaders that started with small group discussions and branched out to parish communities, and then went into a diocesan celebration,” he said of the local efforts that will lead to a regional gathering this spring before culminating with the national meeting this summer.

“It’s like a retreat program for Hispanic Latino Catholics to strengthen them in their faith, to draw from the many, many gifts and blessings that they have to bring to all of us, bring to our church, to encourage and help them then to go back to their parishes and to continue the process of preaching the gospel and of evangelization,” Bishop Tobin said.

“So many of our parishes would be in very dire straits if we didn’t have the vitality and the gifts and the faith of the Latino community,” which is a growing community, he noted.

The bishop also spoke about the upcoming Synod of Bishops this fall in Rome, under the leadership of Pope Francis, on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.

The Diocese of Providence has joined every diocese around the world that has been asked to participate in the synod.

“We did do our diocesan consultation. Louise Dussault led a very nice program of discernment for young people. Our findings were compiled, collated and then sent to the USCCB,” Bishop Tobin said.

The USCCB sent the findings it collected from across the country to Rome, where the responses were collated with those from around the world. This material will then become the basis for discussion when the synod convenes this fall.

“The Diocese of Providence has been very involved in that consultative process,” the bishop said.

On the subject of young people, those he defined as being ages 16-35, he noted that the diocese was assembling a small group to travel to Panama next January to attend World Youth Day with Pope Francis.

“That will be coming up next year and our diocese is involved,” he said.

The bishop went on to lead a question and answer session with the attendees before the program continued with a presentation on CPR by Deacon Richard LaPierre, followed by lunch and an afternoon session on safety in the church and at large gatherings by diocesan Director of Compliance Kevin O’Brien, along with a captain from the Rhode Island State Police.