Marking the latest step in the diocese’s ongoing pastoral planning process, pastoral care areas have submitted recommendations on how they might “collaborate and respond to the current challenges to parish life” and “a recommended working plan” from the College of Consultors is being reviewed, according to an October 6 letter from Bishop Robert J. Cunningham.
(Editor’s note: Bishop Cunningham’s letter is reprinted in full below and is also available on the diocese’s website at www. syrdio.org.)
Mailed to registered households in the diocese, Bishop Cunningham’s letter assured the faithful that “it is not my intention to close parishes” and that “plans will unfold gradually, not one at a time on a grand scale.” He also cautioned, however, that “that does not mean that parishes will continue to exist as they currently are” and reminded parishioners that “change is a part of our lives and part of our growth.”
The Catholic Sun spoke with Bishop Cunningham to discuss the proposed plan, what it means for parish communities and what the future holds for the Diocese of Syracuse.
Catholic Sun: The diocese has been engaged in pastoral planning for more than three decades. Why have you asked for this plan now?
Bishop Cunningham: We have to recognize that pastoral planning is an ongoing process. I’m told that the first concrete steps in this were taken in 1983. Basically what we’re doing now is just updating previous plans, looking to see what changes have taken place and how we can best put it all into practice. The purpose of a plan now is a plan of review and of moving for the future.
People recall that there was a big plan in 2007. [Editor’s note: That year, plans for linking, clustering, merging and closing parishes across the diocese were announced.] Since that time, things have changed. It’s time for us to take another look and go forward for the next seven to ten years.
CS: Your letter notes that demographic shifts have created a number of challenges in the diocese. Can you explain those challenges specifically?
BC: One of the biggest, of course, is population shift. At one time, the diocese had probably 370,000 [Catholic] people; we have approximately 100,000 fewer [now]. And Catholic or not, the population has shifted. People have moved out of the state. For those who have stayed, many have moved from the cities to the suburbs. Areas in the cities that were heavily populated by Catholics are not populated as much anymore. There were a number of ethic parishes which were founded by immigrant families; we don’t have as much of that anymore. And, realistically, there has been a change in Sunday Mass attendance.
CS: The plan on your desk is the result of a yearlong collaborative planning effort guided by the Office of Pastoral Planning. Over the last year, pastoral care areas (PCAs) were asked to assess their ministries, Mass schedules, staffing and financial resources and make recommendations for collaboration. What kinds of recommendations are included in the plan?
BC: There’s a greater emphasis on sharing ministries with neighboring parishes, sharing staff, taking a hard look at resources, both human and financial. I think we’re going to have to see a greater amount of clustering of parishes. Many parishes already share business managers or youth ministers; I think there will be more of that in the future. And pastors will have to try to cover for each other.
CS: The plan also reflects input from the College of Consultors, a body of priests who serve as your advisors and collaborators. What kinds of recommendations did they provide?
BC: The College of Consultors are priests who have worked in the diocese for a number of years in a particular area and they represent all the areas of the diocese. They give advice from their perspectives; they know what’s going on in their areas and they share that with me. We count on their wisdom and experience. They review the plans that have been submitted by the PCAs and ultimately make a final recommendation to me.
CS: Your letter states that it is not your intention to close parishes but emphasizes that “one of the greatest challenges for all of us is that parish life will not look or feel exactly the same as it has in the past.” What new models of parish life will be introduced in the diocese?
BC: I don’t intend to impose plans on parishes. I think that parishes working together need creative ways to see how they can minister in the future. What works in one particular area might not work in another area. There has to be more and more shared leadership, clustering, linking. Down the road, it’s possible that not every parish will be able to have Sunday Mass, but hopefully that’s a long time away.
In the present time there are a few clusters of parishes where retired priests are fulfilling sacramental responsibilities but the day-to-day operations of parish [are managed] by a lay parish life director. We have to make greater use of the lay people — in the business areas, in faith formation, which has always been propelled by the laity. All those things will continue and increase.
CS: Your letter says that “plans will unfold gradually” and that pastoral planning will continue to evolve. Can you explain how changes will occur on the parish level?
BC: Some of those plans from 2007 are still being implemented. Changes will occur on the parish level with a change in pastoral leadership. There will also be changes in the time of Masses. Every parish might not be able to have the number of Masses that they want.
I think that any pastoral planning requires the generosity of not only the priests, but also the people. Both groups of people need to be generous in adjusting so that we can continue to serve the people to the best of our ability.
CS: Later this month, you will be meeting with diocesan clergy and lay parish life directors to review the recommendations. You’ll then ask the PCAs to propose plans and Mass schedule changes before Christmas. How will those changes be approved and when will they be implemented?
BC: In this whole process, there have been suggestions made to parishes of things to look at. Some have done it and some haven’t. So they’re being asked to meet a couple of times more before the end of the year to look at things — again, ways that they can cooperate in terms of Mass schedules and things like that.
Those changes aren’t going to come so much from the diocese, but from the parish areas. They’ll submit them to the diocese, but, by and large, I foresee the diocese accepting recommendations that come in.
From a diocesan perspective, we have to make sure that the widest number of people are helped — and it will take some time to do that.
Information on the pastoral planning process in the diocese will be made available on an ongoing basis through multiple outlets, including the diocese’s website and its social media channels; the Sun and its website; parish bulletins; and letters to households.