The Challenges We Face

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

As summer fades and a new “work year” begins, perhaps it’s a good time for our diocesan Church to reflect, evaluate and plan. Where are we going in the year ahead? What are our strengths and weaknesses? And what are the challenges we face?

From my perch overseeing the Diocese I can readily identify several significant challenges we face. These are agenda items I deal with almost every day in one form or another. Although these issues won’t surprise you, a couple of reminders might be helpful. First, these challenges aren’t new; they’ve been around for awhile, and some of them are constant in the life of the Church. And second, these problems aren’t at all unique to the Diocese of Providence. Many dioceses, perhaps most dioceses in our part of the world encounter the same challenges.

The sacramental practice of the faithful is the first area of concern. It seems clear that many Catholics have lost sight of the meaning and the beauty of the sacraments in their spiritual life.

The most obvious issue is the dramatic decline in Sunday Mass attendance. Though exact numbers are difficult to grasp, it’s likely that in the Diocese of Providence about 25% of Catholics attend Holy Mass regularly. The decline in Mass attendance is a complex reality that has swept across the Church in the United States and in other places of the world. It’s a serious issue, though, for Sunday Mass attendance is at the heart and soul of the Catholic Faith.

There are other important issues related to the sacramental practice of Catholics, including the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the understanding and approach to Holy Matrimony, and the demise of traditional Catholic practices at the time of death and burial.

The second major challenge we face is the vitality of our parish communities.

I’ve now visited all 150 parishes of the Providence Diocese, and it’s been a positive and productive experience for me. I’ve found that the Faith is strong and that there’s lots of diversity among our parishes. Each parish has its own history, traditions and characteristics.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the Diocese of Providence does not need to embark upon a large scale “parish reorganization program” like some other dioceses have conducted. 150 parishes for over 600,000 Catholics is not especially disproportionate. But there are some specific locales where parish reorganization has to occur; places where the demographics have changed dramatically, where there are more parishes than we need or can support. In some of these regions discussions about parish structures have already begun.

Another challenge of our diocesan Church is the survival of our Catholic schools.

There’s almost universal agreement about the value of Catholic schools. Statements of the Church and a plethora of studies are complemented by our lived experience – Catholic schools remain the most effective way of handing on our Catholic Faith and that consistently happens in the context of a strong academic program.

But in this Diocese as elsewhere, Catholic schools face huge problems that threaten their survival: dwindling enrollment, increasing costs and deteriorating physical plants top the list. We have to do whatever we can to support our Catholic schools, and to do so in a way that makes them affordable and accessible to as many children as possible. There are no easy answers though, and the schools won’t survive on good will and sincere intentions alone.

The next challenge I see is the need to strengthen the voice of the Church in public affairs. Critics will say the Church should stay out of public affairs, often quoting the Scripture that says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God, what is God’s.” But even Caesar is subject to God’s law and it’s up to members of the Church to speak that truth. As the Bishops of the United States have written, “The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith. It is a basic part of the mission we have received from Jesus Christ.” (Faithful Citizenship, #9)

As you know, since becoming Bishop of Providence I’ve spoken out rather insistently about a number of public issues that have obvious moral implications including abortion, “gay marriage,” and immigration. But the obligation (and the right) to bring faith to bear in the marketplace is not mine alone. It’s yours too. Our goal is to inspire all the members of the Church to speak out and become more involved in creating a just and moral society.

The long term financial stability of the Diocese is the final challenge I’d like to mention. I should emphasize that on a day-to-day basis the financial status of the Providence Diocese is healthy. The normal operations of the local Church – including its administrative, educational, charitable and pastoral activities – are sufficiently funded by parish assessments and the Catholic Charity Fund. We have some lingering debt, and we need to be very careful with our expenditures, (I’m firmly committed to avoiding operating deficits!) but as long as the parishes are able to pay their assessments and people are generous to the Annual Charity Fund, we should be okay.

The long term financial needs of the Diocese are more troublesome. We need to build some permanent endowments to help fund seminary education, the priests pension funds, support for Catholic schools, and the charitable mission of the Church, to name just a few of our unmet needs. And the property maintenance needs of the Diocese are enormous, with no large plant fund to depend on. These special needs cannot be addressed by the annual operating budget of the Diocese. Someday soon we’ll need to find additional funding in the range of approximately $50 to $75 million if we’re to meet our long term needs and hand on a healthy Church to future generations.

So, dear readers, there are just a few of the things that keep me awake at night. But I wonder what you think about the challenges, the priorities I’ve described. Perhaps you have comments or suggestions of your own. Let us know by sending a letter to the Editor. If possible we’ll publish it.