Pastoral Planning Committee looking at challenging times ahead

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PROVIDENCE — After analyzing downward trends in worship and sacramental practice, and expressing concerns about the future viability of the traditional parish structure as the number of priests reaching retirement age greatly eclipses the number entering the clergy, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has tasked a group of priests and laity with planning for the future of the Church in the diocese.

The bishop’s Pastoral Planning Committee, composed of 17 members representing priests, permanent deacons and the laity, is currently working with representatives of parishes in different regions of the diocese in an effort to help guide them in making tough decisions about their future viability.

Over a six-to-eight-month period, the committee meets with a group of pastors representing a region — with the group currently focused on West Warwick and Coventry — and then with individuals chosen by the pastor to represent each parish at a regional gathering.

Their task: To identify ways of streamlining the offering of religious services in their area, taking into account falling Mass attendance rates and a rapidly decreasing availability of priests to serve the more than 140 churches still open across the diocese.

In the weeks and months ahead, these individuals are asked to continue meeting on their own to come up with recommendations on how best to proceed with a restructuring of their local parish order.

It’s not an easy process, or one readily welcome by either pastors or their faithful in the parishes.

While deep down they may see the handwriting on the wall — that the beloved parish church where they have shared so many fond many memories through the years cannot sustain itself with staff or resources for much longer, and will need to merge with another or even close in the short-term — emotions can run raw for both priests and parishioners as they have difficulty accepting this new reality.

“Things are changing, there are less priests, less people in pews,” said Father Michael Najim, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Westerly.

The founder of the Pastoral Planning Committee, it was Father Najim who suggested to Bishop Tobin almost three years ago that he felt it was time to begin moving past the analysis of the figures and begin the process of either merging or closing parishes to ensure the best use of Church resources going forward.

“We didn’t seem to have a plan for the future,” he said. “Bishop Tobin asked me if I would form a committee to make specific recommendations.”

The committee has been at work for about a year now and is hoping to have some helpful recommendations from its first regional committee in the next couple of months.”

Among the areas they encourage the local parishioners to consider when developing recommendations are finances, aging infrastructure, declining numbers of worshippers and the availability of priestly resources to serve a certain area.

While the diocese had already begun the process of twinning, or yoking parishes — having one pastor serve two, three or even more worship sites in order to keep each church open — that process has become very taxing on many pastors who find themselves shuttling back and forth between faith communities.

Father Najim tells the regional committee members to take this into account in their decision making.

“As they’re looking ahead, they need to be realistic about how much their future pastor is going to be able to do. We don’t want them to come up with a plan that is going to set their pastor up for burnout,” he said.

Serving three churches, each with its own group of trustees, finance and parish councils is just too much to expect of a pastor, he said.

Just as important, Msgr. Raymond B. Bastia, diocesan Vicar of Finance, and a member of the Pastoral Planning Committee, encourages the members to consider the financial costs of keeping church buildings open, even if a parish can save on a pastor’s salary by sharing human resources.

“We want to avoid a false assumption that sometimes, even when these situations have been established, where a pastor has two separate worship sites, that this is automatically going to be the case indefinitely. For what you save with the salary and benefits of a pastor, you don’t do away with things like the insurance, the upkeep, repairs; you still need some staff to maintain the facility, pay the utilities, etc. These things still remain,” Msgr. Bastia said.

Rebecca Page-Perez, manager for the Office of Pastoral Planning, says the process is working as intended, and members of the local committees take their role very seriously and understand the power they are being given to help shape the future of the Church in their local area.

“They’ve been very cooperative,” she said of the individuals she has worked with through this difficult process. “They are taking initiative.”

Karen Cooper, a parishioner at St. Theresa in Tiverton and a member of the Pastoral Planning Committee, describes the changing times the Church is now experiencing as a “perfect storm.”

“There are less people going to church, and there are less priests to fill vacant positions. And you can pile on top of that huge deferred maintenance costs that are making huge demands on finances,” she said.

Despite this, Cooper sees the committee as a way to help the faithful bridge these troubled waters and work together in a greater spirit of cooperation.

“My view of our real purpose is for us as Catholics to work together to come up with solutions to the inevitable. If it is inevitable, then let’s see how we can all work together as Catholics.”

Deacon John Pryor, of St. Mary of the Bay Parish in Warren, also serves on the planning committee. He said all involved have been urged to participate in the pastoral planning process in a peaceful, patient and productive way.

“Parish consolidations and closures are difficult endeavors that require open and transparent leadership, dialogue and decision-making,” he said. “It requires the ability to see and respond to the current reality as it exists while approaching the future with hope and optimism, even when that future is uncomfortable and uncertain.”

Parishes in the diocese facing difficult decisions due to demographic and financial realities, he noted.

“The pastoral planning committee is here to guide, support and encourage pastors and parishioners in the decision making process and to do so, in some cases, with a sense of urgency.

Fellow committee member Father John C. Codega, pastor of St. Brendan Parish in Riverside, feels the issue of closing and merging parishes, even with the establishment of the committee, is not being dealt with quickly enough.

“As a diocese, we are not merging, closing, combining parishes in an expeditious way,” he said.

“In the next three years 40 pastors will be eligible to retire. With few scheduled to be ordained that means, overnight, parishes will be told they will share a pastor, merge, or close. We are not allowing the faithful adequate time to come to terms with the diminishing number of priests.”

Speaking for some of his brother priests, Father Codega sees it as unfair that they are being asked to take on two or more parishes and manage several buildings, with many of the new pastors coming into these daunting assignments with only a few years of experience.

“As priests, they were ordained to preach the Gospel, not repair roofs!” he says. “People’s minds are rightfully focused narrowly on their own parish, not on the needs of the diocese as a whole. But I feel, we need to have the larger picture in place and lead them in that direction sooner, for it’s already too late.”