PROVIDENCE — Nearly 300 people braved icy roads and temperatures in the single digits to learn more about the statistics that are governing the direction their diocese is headed and what their role in the continued celebration of their faith will be.
Although the trends compiled last year by Msgr. Jacques Plante showing a steady decline in Mass attendance, Catholic baptisms, marriages and funerals in many parishes across the diocese over the last decade were shared with readers of Rhode Island Catholic in a detailed analysis series on the individual deaneries, many attendees of Monday night’s special event “Pastoral Planning Today: Its Challenges and its Opportunities,” expressed surprise and deep concern about the future of the faith.
While sobering, the local statistics are in line with national trends, especially in the Northeast and Midwest.
In the first of two sessions this week (the second was presented to priests in the diocese), Mark Mogilka, M.S.W., M.A., director of Stewardship and Pastoral Services for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis., a nationally recognized speaker, consultant and writer in the area of multiple parish pastoring and the future, spoke of the need for the faithful to begin taking action now to find areas of common ground between parishes and begin working together to better serve the needs of the faithful, if they are not doing so already.
In the past eight years, the diocese has reported a nearly 20 percent drop in Mass attendance.
“It’s not a good pattern,” Mogilka said. “If we continue with these patterns, the Church is going to have problems. The status quo, as we know it, is not sustainable.”
Mogilka spoke about many of his experiences in the Diocese of Green Bay, where 60 percent of parishes share a pastor, and the number of parishes has narrowed from 215 in the 1990s to 157 today.
“You’ve got to be intentional. You’ve got to be practical. You’ve got to be about planning,” he said.
Despite the statistics showing an overall decline in Mass attendance, Mogilka noted that those who do practice their faith regularly should see that they are part of a larger group, and then work within that structure to reenergize and evangelize others.
“This is not just a job for our bishop or for our pastors, it’s for all of us,” he said.
“You still have, on average, 105,000 gathered around the table of the Lord each week,” he said.
He also spoke of Pope Francis’ call for those in the church to become activists for their faith.
“Dreams are focused hopes, and it is hope that takes us from our current situation into the future,” Mogilka said of the pope’s words.
Father Michael Najim, director of Spiritual Formation at Our Lady of Providence Seminary, introduced Mogilka, and worked with him in preparation for his visit.
“Your presence here this evening shows how much you love the church,” Father Najim said, addressing the large crowd that gathered in the newly renovated Bishop McVinney Auditorium for the presentation. “I’m very grateful and inspired by your presence.”
Calling the faithful the “backbone of the diocese,” Father Najim said that the Church is relying on them to assist in developing a plan for the uncertain future it faces as vocations fail to keep pace with the number of priests reaching retirement age, and the numbers of individuals attending weekly Mass declines.
And that future is already upon us.
While there are 20 young men preparing for ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of Providence over the next eight years, more than 60 will become eligible to retire during that same period.
Msgr. Albert A. Kenney, diocesan Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, prayed over the gathering that God would renew a spirit of evangelization in everyone.
“We are gathered here tonight to listen, to learn and to pray for the new evangelization,” a phrase coined by Saint Pope John Paul II,” he said. “In baptism, every one of us receives a call and commission to be ambassadors for Jesus Christ.
Michael Mikolay traveled from St. Mark’s Parish in Jamestown with fellow parishioners, and parish trustees Michael Casey and Manuel Neronha to hear Mogilka’s presentation.
“We know what’s happening over the next three years, but what is going to happen over the next 10 years?” Mikolay wondered, given the downward trends.
As a trustee, Neronha said he and others are very involved in their parish and will do whatever it takes to ensure it remains an active one.
“We’re engaged with what is going on in our church and in the diocese,” Neronha said.
Claire Gruneberg, who works as a bookkeeper at five parishes in and around Providence, said she can already see the toll that having one pastor minister to upwards of three parishes can take.
“The challenges are unbelievable for these pastors,” Gruneberg said.
One possible solution, she suggests, but one that would be a bitter pill to swallow for some, is to close parishes outright, instead of consolidating them for the time being in light of the inevitable as priestly resources decline.
“It’s really too much,” she said. “Somebody’s got to do something to help the priests.”
John Kay, a state officer in the Knights of Columbus and a member of Serra, the organization that fosters vocations to the priesthood, said he attended the presentation to see just how serious the challenges facing the Church are becoming.
“With only 20 new priests coming in over the next eight years, that’s not enough,” he said.