Pastoral Planning providing guidance as parishes chart future in uncertain times

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WOONSOCKET — Sitting among the handful of local priests and small groups of parishioners representing their parishes was the proverbial elephant in the center of the room.

After 40 minutes of polite listening and meaningful interaction with members of the diocesan Pastoral Planning Committee — which organized the gathering as part of an ongoing study of parishes in all areas of the state in an effort to create collaborations and likely future consolidations among church communities — one of the representatives finally asked the burning question.

“What is going to close and how soon?” one participant, who described herself as a “pessimistic accountant,” asked during the committee’s regional planning meeting, held on July 19 at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish.

“Do we have some sort of an idea of how many churches the diocese wants to close? They must have a plan.”

Father Michael Najim, chairperson and literally a founding Father of the Pastoral Planning Committee, had heard this question before in two other faith communities where the group is working with local parishes to plan for their future and was prepared to answer it.

“It’s a good question, but it’s 100 percent not true,” he said, noting how in another region of the diocese parishioners questioned the need to devote such amounts of time and energy to a planning process whose outcome they feared was already predetermined.

He said that Bishop Thomas J. Tobin — who about four years ago tasked Father Najim with forming the committee after he expressed to the bishop his concerns about the future viability of parishes in light of declining priestly resources, Mass attendance and sacramental practice — has been very clear that the process be one that allows parishioners to realistically assess their individual situations both now and in the years to come.

“The Bishop has always preferred that there be a collaborative approach where the people of the parish [in situations where a church cannot continue to sustain itself alone] actually come forward to say ‘we want to close,’” Father Najim said.

“The diocesan plan is what we’re doing here. You are coming up with the plan, and that plan may have to be revisited, but we have to remain open to the possibility that some churches may have to close in the future, not just here in Woonsocket, but throughout the diocese.”

Planning Manager Appointed

Rebecca Page Perez, who through her official appointment on July 1 by Bishop Tobin moved from part-time to full-time manager of the Office of Pastoral Planning, says the planning process is a well-organized system focused on educating both the pastors and parish representatives about the need to streamline operations and consolidate resources where feasible and empowering them to make these tough decisions.

She said the first step in the committee’s work in any new region involves educating both the pastors and their parishioners about the need to think about things in a new way, as it can be challenging for both to now be called to embrace the inevitable changes ahead.

“We give them homework to do between meetings so they can develop a plan,” she said.

Page Perez has developed a new Pastoral Planning Web page, which offers a wealth of information designed to make the entire process transparent. The site is easily accessed by visiting the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence homepage (www.dioceseofprovidence.org), and clicking on the Pastoral Planning button.

She said that as a result of publicity of the meetings held so far, as well as logins to the Web page, pastors have begun reaching out to her directly at the chancery.

“Priests are now requesting to come in and talk about the future of their parishes, especially those that are planning to retire in the next one, two or three years,” Page Perez said. “A lot of them are taking the steps now to meet with their parish councils.”

The Pastoral Planning Process

In her work with the Pastoral Planning Council, Page Perez encourages local groups to begin meeting among themselves to discuss ways they could collaborate in the future in areas such as such as faith formation and youth ministry, possibly operating one consolidated program instead of several.

Over a period of months, their ideas are formed into plans that are reviewed during the committee’s regional planning meetings and brought back before the group for refinement before the committee puts its final touches on a finished plan for presentation to Bishop Tobin for his consideration.

“Father Wooley’s plan for Woonsocket is the first time that a dean [of a local deanery] has drawn up a complete plan and presented it to a group,” Page Perez said.

His plan includes a map of Woonsocket drawn into quarters with one parish anchoring each quadrant in a city once filled with three times that number of full and active churches.

“We’re already well along,” said Father Wooley, in presenting his plan a week before the regional meeting to the Pastoral Planning Committee.

With four full-time pastors available to serve Woonsocket it’s a workable plan, unless one retires.

“We’re all fairly busy, we’re not burned out, but we are busy,” he said, noting that the plan assumes for the near term at least that four priests would continue to be assigned to Woonsocket. “We probably can’t take on any new things.”

The plan was distributed to members of the regional planning committee, who will review it among themselves over the next couple of months before regrouping and charting a viable way forward for consideration.

The Pastoral Planning Council and its regional planning committees have several options to choose from when deciding the form of action to take when changes to the structure of parishes are being considered.

The first such action is taken administratively and involves the “yoking” of separate parishes. In this instance one pastor administers individually two or more parishes whose buildings remain open, with their assets and liabilities remaining local and separate.

The second choice for taking action involves choosing from a list of permitted canonical options.

The first selection from the menu calls for a parish to be “Suppressed,” in which all buildings are closed and all assets and liabilities are assigned to the next highest Juridical entity, such as a neighboring parish, or the diocese. Examples of suppressed parishes include the former St. Lawrence Parish in North Providence and St. Ann Parish in Cranston.

The second selection allows parishes to enter “Combined or Mission Status,” with Parish “A,” being absorbed into Parish “B,” although their corporations would remain separate.

In this instance all buildings may or may not remain open, administration is consolidated and assets and liabilities remain local. Examples of this are the consolidation of St. Anthony and Assumption Parishes in Providence, and St. Mary of the Bay and St. Jean Baptiste Parishes in Warren.

The third selection is known as the “Successor” option, in which two parishes are united to form a new parish, led by one pastor who oversees singular organizational committees. All assets and liabilities remain local and all buildings may or may not remain open. Examples of this model are Holy Family Parish and St. John Paul II Parishes in Pawtucket, All Saints Parish in Woonsocket and SS. Rose and Clement Parish in Warwick.

Looking at the Hard Facts

“Some of those decisions will be hard as you look down the line,” Msgr. Raymond B. Bastia, diocesan Vicar of Finance, and a member of the Pastoral Planning Committee, told the group gathered in Woonsocket. “My view in the process is that you’re going to provide the first step in your affiliations here. It will be an ongoing process for this region as you go forward in the process.”

He noted that those involved in this review process, not only in Woonsocket, Warwick or West Warwick/Coventry, the three initial areas where the planning committee is currently conducting its assessment, must be realistic when considering the continued viability of some parishes.

“You have a lot of old buildings. Old buildings need a lot of care,” Msgr. Bastia reminded them, adding that decisions made now may have to change as circumstances evolve in an era of declining Mass attendance, sacramental practice and increased financial upkeep for many of the older and grand churches whose pews were once filled in bygone days.

While some priests may feel that they can, at least for now, continue to serve the needs of two or three congregations spread out over different clusters of churches, it won’t prevent the unforeseen from happening.

“It’s not going to keep a roof from failing, a boiler from dying,” he said, noting that insurance and other overhead costs can quickly drain already challenged finances.

Challenging Times

In a letter to pastors four years ago, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin outlined the beginning of the effort to deal proactively with a challenge looming on the horizon.

The number of priests reaching the minimum retirement age of 70 and stepping away from active ministry was on the increase, while the number of new priests scheduled to be ordained in the diocese was not sufficient to replace those ranks.

“I am convinced that we have more weekend Masses in the diocese than we need and can reasonably sustain in the future, especially in light of the changing population and the decreasing availability of parish priests,” Bishop Tobin wrote.

About three years ago Father Najim, who now serves as pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Westerly, approached the Bishop with his concerns and was subsequently tasked with forming the Pastoral Planning Committee.

Since its formation in August 2015 the 17 members of the committee, whose members include priests, permanent deacons and the laity, have been meeting with representatives of parishes in West Warwick, Warwick and Woonsocket to help guide them in making tough decisions about their futures.

Through the process the committee first meets with a group of pastors representing a chosen region and then with the pastors and individuals chosen by them to represent each parish at a regional gathering of area churches.

The committee has also hosted larger gatherings, such as one in Warwick in February where more than 400 people have turned out to hear about the need to start planning for the future of their parishes.

In West Warwick/Coventry, the first communities to begin working with the Pastoral Planning Committee, a final plan has been completed and is being reviewed.

Bishop Tobin has said he is grateful for the committee’s willingness to serve the Church in this way.

“I hope it will serve a very important role in our diocese, namely: to encourage the spiritual and pastoral vitality of our parish communities, especially in the area of evangelization; to study the status and future vitality of parishes in specific regions of the diocese as well as the relationship among those parishes; and to be available to assist individual pastors and parish communities when they are going through a process of transition of any sort in their own communities,” Bishop Tobin said when the committee was formed.

Father Dennis Reardon, pastor of All Saints Parish in Woonsocket, said he knows that while change is in the wind, he hopes to at least maintain the status quo, such as the offering of 4 p.m. Masses on Saturdays at both his parish and Precious Blood Parish for the convenience of many who like to worship at that time.

“We’re just at a point where we’re fortunate enough to have the priests we need for what we’re doing, but it’s not in our own minds to say that it’s going to be like this forever,” he said.