WATKINS GLEN — As Father Patrick Connor introduced himself to the audience, he noted that he’s pastor of three Steuben County parish communities in Addison, Bradford and Campbell. In mock surprise, Paul Wilkes wondered why so few.
“Where’s the chancellor? Let’s give him another couple parishes,” Wilkes quipped.
Moments later, Father William Moorby revealed that he oversees all five Catholic churches in Tioga County as well as one in Chemung.
“We’ve got to get this guy a full-time job,” Wilkes remarked.
Wilkes, a nationally renowned author on Catholic issues, served as keynote speaker during a conference on rural ministry Nov. 15 at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel. Humor was one way of conveying to participants his key message: Positive attitudes are vital in managing present and future changes affecting local parishes.
The conference was attended by 110 people, most of who represent rural parishes in the Southern Tier, the Finger Lakes and Livingston County. It was the culmination of a yearlong series of meetings conducted by diocesan officials regarding needs and challenges of these communities.
Most obvious on that list of challenges is the ongoing priest shortage, which in recent years has fueled widespread clustering in the diocese. This can be especially difficult when churches separated by many miles must join forces both physically and ideologically. People at the Nov. 15 conference told of the considerable distances they already travel; the trickiness of joining forces between towns that have different school districts and natural rivalries; migrant workers possibly having to travel further to Mass when their transportation issues are already substantial; and trying to be a team player while harboring fears that one’s own church might close.
But Wilkes asserted that while such concerns are natural, they’re not sufficient cause for widespread wailing and lamenting. He challenged audience members to weigh what stands between their dreams and their present reality, and think of ways they might realize their dreams. He also emphasized the need for imagination and excitement in becoming, as he put it, a “yes” parish rather than a “no” parish. Wilkes added that there’s no place in this process for “spirit suckers” — people who never think a new idea is going to work.
“You feel like the air is getting sucked out of the room. We are not going to allow that,” he said, adding that living in the past is the root cause of spirit-sucking. “You can’t say it too many times: ‘We don’t do that anymore.’”
Wilkes, of Wilmington, N.C., noted numerous success stories in his 2001 book, Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices. He said the churches he cited weren’t necessarily the largest or richest, but offered many examples of vibrancy and vitality.
Along these lines, rural diocesan parishes were asked to compile their own “best practices” prior to the Nov. 15 conference. These notations were blended into a booklet that was distributed to all conference attendees. Best-practice examples included combining bulletin, staff, councils, committees, offices and programs for a four-church parish (Holy Family, Livingston/Steuben counties); using modern technology such as e-mail lists and a parish Web site with homilies available for download (St. Vincent DePaul, Churchville, Monroe County); and staging special seasonal events at each of four worship sites in one parish (Good Shepherd Catholic Community, Cayuga County.)
Much of the conference’s latter half was devoted to further sharing of best practices that are being done or could be done: increasing membership and participation by being friendly and inviting, from the secretary answering the phone to wearing name tags at church; adopting an “us” rather than “they” attitude; and promoting unity by attending Mass at each church in a cluster regardless of the travel involved.