The recent issue of America magazine featured an article by Father Francis X. Hezel, S.J. which resulted from a recent trip to his native city, Buffalo. He wrote of older areas of the city; stores in which his family had shopped; schools and churches that once served as the cornerstone of neighborhoods. Buildings both secular and religious are now used for other purposes. Having lived the majority of my life in that city, I could easily relate to much that Father Hezel wrote. It was a trip down memory lane for me too. I enjoyed the few minutes of reminiscing about days gone by, days when the Church and its institutions were expanding to meet the needs of its growing membership. Father spoke about “the emotional tug to recapture our past and comfort ourselves in it.” I know there are times when I try to do that when I ride down streets in neighborhoods that were a part of my youth.
As I reflected on Father Hezel’s article, I thought of the people of Syracuse and those scattered throughout the seven counties of our diocese. How many of you have been impacted by necessary changes that have taken place in the structure of our diocese. As you ride through neighborhoods or walk city streets that have changed so much in the past 50 years, you too remember the past with affection and perhaps with nostalgia for what was once but is no more. Our rural communities are not exempt from change either. Population shifts away from small towns to the city and from cities to the suburbs or to other areas of our country have greatly impacted the local church.
As I was thinking about the past, recognizing the present reality and looking to the future, I made a visit to our diocesan archives. I opened up the 1960 Official Catholic Directory and compared it with the 2010 statistics from the same source. Let me share with you some interesting facts.
In 1960, our diocese was comprised of approximately 350,000 Catholics. They were served in 157 parishes by 321 active diocesan priests and 84 priests who were members of religious orders. Nineteen priests were retired; seven worked outside the diocese. Thus the total number of priests associated with the diocese was 431. They were joined by 27 brothers and 1,032 sisters, serving in our parishes, 20 high schools and 72 parochial elementary schools. Thirty-five thousand students were being educated in Catholic schools and another 56,000 students in religious education programs. The number of infant baptisms that year was 13,494. Eighty-nine young men were preparing for the priesthood in various seminaries.
Fast-forward if you will 50 years. The 2010 directory notes that we now have 284,000 Catholics being served in 136 parishes. We have 154 active diocesan priests and 36 religious order priests. The number of retired priests, many of whom continue to serve according to their ability, is 77. Eleven priests serve outside the diocese. Our total number of priests ministering in the diocese is 278 (153 fewer priests now than we had in 1960). There are now six brothers serving in the diocese and 317 sisters. We have six Catholic high schools and 22 elementary schools serving approximately 5,600 students; 29,000 are enrolled in our religious education programs. There were 3,200 infant baptisms last year. Fifteen young men are preparing for the priesthood.
Demographic changes which continue to occur in our diocese are similar to changes taking place throughout the northeastern U.S. The numbers alone indicate our need to continue to change and adjust in order to address the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We need to address these issues realistically as we face the future.
With these statistics in mind, I have asked Father James Lang, my Vicar for Parishes, and Brother Edward Falsey, OFM, Conv. who works with the planning process to convene a meeting of the diocesan consultors to continue the conversation about where we are and where we need to move, in an orderly and consultative way, to serve the people of this diocese.
Throughout these discussions, it is important to treasure the past and the familial associations which people have with their parish churches. These churches are the sacred places where they were baptized, participated in regular Sunday Mass, celebrated their marriages and from which their loved ones were buried. But at the same time, these discussions must address the reality that the statistics present. Of utmost importance, consideration must be given to the availability of a priest to celebrate the Eucharist and the sacraments for God’s faithful. With far fewer priests available this will lead most likely to the reconfiguration of additional parishes. I know from personal experience that these changes may cause pain and heartache but I know too that the changes are necessary.
The statistics are not meant to discourage, but rather to help all of us understand our situation. Hopefully they will help us recognize that each of us, in our own way, needs to be faithful witnesses and disciples of the Lord. We need to recognize our vocation to be a missionary and to lead others to the Church. As people of faith, we hold fast to the hope that God has a plan for His Church. Our Holy Father reminds us: “The person who has hope lives differently …” (Spe Salvi, #2). In our current reality, where numbers decrease and parishes are reconfigured we are called to be people of hope who seek God’s will in all things confident that He has plans for our welfare … plans to give us a future full of hope (cf. Jer. 29:11). Likewise St. Paul reminds us that “all things work for good for those who love God.” (Rm. 8: 28)
I also invite all in the diocese to pray fervently for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life from your own families. This is not something that we can leave to others. It is incumbent upon all to pray for vocations, to identify vocations and to invite young men and young women to consider the fulfilling and life-giving vocation that can be theirs.
The New Evangelization called for by Pope Paul VI, Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI should impel us not only to witness to our faith but also encourage us to invite others to join with us in the journey of faith. While the message is always Christ and the good news of salvation in and through Him, its proclamation, in today’s circumstances, requires a new ardor and vigor, new methods and expressions. The New Evangelization calls us to deepen our own faith so that we will have the motivation and courage to share it with others. May each of us be receptive to the Gospel and retain the freshness, vigor and strength needed to proclaim its beauty and truth.
If you have an intention you would like me to remember in prayer, please forward it to me at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.