Bishop Discusses Diocese of Past, Present, Future - Catholic Courier

Bishop Discusses Diocese of Past, Present, Future


It is good to be with you this morning. In my 22 years as your Bishop, we have taken many journeys together. I cannot imagine a group of people with whom I would rather journey than the people of this Diocese. As we begin our next phase of pastoral planning, it is appropriate that we step back and see from where we have come, what we have learned, and on which paths we might set our feet for the future.

Diocesan Values

Our 1993 Diocesan Synod clarified our diocesan mission and values. The mission spoke to us about our goals, but the values spoke to us about the character of our life together. As we continue our journey of faith, the following values continue to guide us:

  • To be a collaborative Church
  • To call forth lay leadership
  • To utilize fully the richness of our diversity
  • To be open, trusting and respectful in our dialogue with one another, and
  • To engage in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and cooperation

Our pastoral planning process fit us well because it reflected these diocesan values in such a radical way. Pastoral Planning for the New Millennium was a grass roots process that valued the role of local communities and, as a result, required much of these local communities. I thank all those who dedicated themselves to this important task – from lay leaders to pastoral ministers-religious, laypersons, deacons – to faithful priests.

The results of their work and the ongoing story of their implementation are well documented on the pastoral planning web site. We are truly blessed with the People of God of the Diocese of Rochester.

What We Have Learned

As with any major project, Pastoral Planning for the New Millennium taught us a great deal about our local Church. The process reinforced some things we already knew. Others were surprises. You received a handout that elaborates the major findings of this first round of pastoral planning. Let me now just list some of the conclusions reached by our pastoral planning department after the focus groups and evaluation of the past year.

  1. We were affirmed in our belief that involvement and feedback from the local level were essential in devising effective pastoral plans.
  2. At the same time, we learned that appropriate direction and support from the diocese were needed to carry out this ambitious planning process.
  3. We were reminded again that the involvement and leadership of lay people were essential to the success of this process.
  4. We learned the importance of dealing with reality – based on accurate information and projections – and not living in the past or future.
  5. We have sharpened our understanding of the nature of church.
  6. We learned, and need to acknowledge, that we have just begun to address some of the unmet pastoral needs identified through the first round of pastoral planning.
  7. We came to appreciate that the first round of pastoral planning was primarily about building relationships and the infrastructure of collaboration.

As I reviewed the very fine work done by Bill Pickett, Karen Rinefierd, and Casey Lopata, it all resonated with me. We have learned a lot, and we have much more to learn. I have been privileged to be with all but one of the 35 planning groups as they celebrated the completion of their process and began their collaboration. That wonderful experience helped me gain an appreciation for the issues and challenges faced by our parishes and faith communities. While the parishes and faith communities share many commonalties, there are important differences and thus different challenges. Let me share with you some of my reflections on parishes in three different settings.

Urban Parishes

Though there are exceptions, parishes in older, central areas of our cities face almost overwhelming circumstances. Typically both the overall and the Catholic population of the area is declining. Churches that once reverberated with the joyous faith of a thousand people are, compared to those earlier days, now nearly silent and nearly empty. Where once there were families and multiple generations, there are now the elderly and those who drive in from their suburban homes. Even when congregations are composed of multigenerational families, they are struggling with the injustices of our society and economy that make it difficult to maintain a humane quality of life. The human and financial resources of these parishes are simply not sufficient to support a ministry and pastoral program adequate to the needs of the congregation and those who live within the parish.

Suburban Parishes

As the inner core of our cities declines, new residences are built in suburban and ex-urban areas. The impact on suburban parishes is clear. Though our overall diocesan population growth is far below the national average, we have parishes that are grappling with the problem of overwhelming growth. Our largest single parishes now exceed 3000 families and are located in areas where future population growth will outpace the average for our area.

Physical expansion of worship space and increased pastoral programming to meet these needs pose significant problems. Gradually, even our largest parishes are losing the services of parochial vicars. We need to find ways to reduce the workload of pastors, and not by merely shifting more responsibilities to already overworked staff members.

Conversely, some suburban communities – in fact most of those in the first ring outside the city – are already beginning to experience the decline in population that has created issues for urban parishes. This is especially evident in the increasing age of parishioners and the pastoral needs associated with that phenomenon.

Rural Parishes

Except for those feeling the impact of the migration from cities and near-city suburbs, rural parishes are also dealing with declining and aging populations. It is difficult for these parishes to support the ministries needed by their communities with a declining population and financial base. Even when it becomes apparent that the best solution is to combine into a single parish, or at least reduce the number of worship sites, there is often no site than can physically accommodate the larger community resulting from consolidation. Parishes that need to reduce their number of Masses often also face facility limits.

As it becomes increasingly likely that we will need to reduce the number of parishes or worship sites that we can support with priests, we worry about losing the Catholic presence in a local community. Our local geography and weather – as well as the aging population – make the possibility of having to drive longer distances to worship quite difficult. Those parishes that are growing because of out-migration are also facing daunting facilities challenges as they become swamped with new parishioners.

What we have learned is that our concern must not be with the numbers of priests, Masses or worship sites, but rather with the quality and vitality of parishes and faith communities. We can always figure out solutions to our quantitative and structural problems. What does matter most is the quality and vitality of our lives together in the Lord that creates the companionship and mutual love required to take the risks of a Christian life of service to others.

Where We Are Headed: A Look At 2025

As an aside, I must note that for me this is all theoretical.

The projection from CARA, the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University, indicates that the Diocese will have 64 active priests by 2025, a decline of 60 percent from our current level. This projection is based on assumptions about ordinations, incardinations, mortality, and retirement age. Even considering a fairly extensive use of priests from outside the diocese, it still seems very likely that there will be only 64 active priests in 25 years. We have also learned that the number of active priests is not always the relevant number, since there will always be a few whose services are needed in, or better suited to, roles other than pastor.

While this may seem disastrous, and certainly not a future I would choose, I think we should remember that 25 years ago, in 1975, we had some 325 active priests. If we had forecast then that we would have 160 active priests in 2000, we probably would have called that a disaster. Yet, the vitality of many of our parishes demonstrates how our local church has quite successfully dealt with this change. Based on that experience, I am deeply confident we can do so again.

Given the underlying population increases projected for the 12 counties of the Diocese, the number of Catholics will increase 3.2 percent by 2030. In approximate terms, this means that the Diocese will go from one priest per 800 registered households to one priest per 2000 registered households. Currently the Diocese has one priest per parish. If the number of parishes stays constant, there will be one priest per 2.5 parishes. Think of your own parish and your own planning group. What will it mean to you when we have one priest for 2000 households – not 2000 people but 2000 households? How should the faith communities in your planning group be structured if they have half as many priests assigned as they do today – or perhaps even fewer? Currently, if each priest were saying three Masses of Sunday obligation, there would be a total of 450 Eucharists each weekend. By 2025, there would be a total of only 180 Eucharistic liturgies. Given the likelihood that at least 30 parishes will need to have two or more Masses, this means there will be parishes that will not be able to have regular Sunday Eucharist. And supposing that the present physical capacity of churches in the Diocese doesn’t change, there will likely be a sizeable number of parishes without regular Sunday Eucharist.

Effective planning for the next five years must take these longer-term projections into account. I have asked the Priest Personnel Board to develop a strategy that responds to the longer-term future. We know for sure that we cannot continue as we are in the face of this pending change. Diocesan policies with regard to priests, assignment of pastoral leaders, building expansion, sacramental celebrations, among other issues, need to respond to this future reality. Pastoral Planning for the New Millennium is part of that response, but so too are the changes taking place in the assignment of pastoral leaders to parishes.

Beginning with this current round of pastoral assignments, all pastoral leadership openings are open to both priests who have completed six years of pastoral service, and to any pastoral administrator or anyone in the pastoral administrator pool. My preference and heart-felt desire, as you know, is to assign a priest pastor to each of our parishes. This, unfortunately, is not possible in our current circumstances. Already a priest pastor without responsibility for another parish leads less than 50 percent of our parishes. More than a third of our parishes are clustered with one or more other parishes and are served by a single pastor. Pastoral administrators currently lead 8 percent of our parishes. The future will accentuate these trends. Thus, since it is not possible to appoint a priest to every parish, I have decided that the Priest Personnel Board must have the ability to review initially both priests and pastoral administrators for each pastoral opening. While the preference, as I said above, will always be for a priest, increasingly pastoral administrators will be asked to assume this pastoral-leadership position.

I realize that several Pastoral plans call for specific pastoral leadership models: a pastor here, a pastoral administrator there. As much as possible, we will try to honor these plans, but it may happen that the realities of available human resources may move us in a different direction. Parishes that are currently led by pastoral administrators and strongly desire to continue with that model may find themselves again assigned priest pastors. Parishes that have assumed they would always have priest pastors may indeed find that a pastoral administrator is assigned. In all this change, I promise you that my decisions will always be guided by what is best for the specific parish and for the Diocese as a whole. I know that I can count on your understanding and support as we move in this direction.

In this context, I am often asked, “Won’t we have married priests by 2025?” Once again I remind you, for me it’s all speculation. No one knows the future. In 1975, who could have guessed what the Church in 2000 would have looked like? Much may change or very little. We do know that the world itself will change. What we don’t know are the exact ways in which the Church will change in response to or in spite of those social and cultural changes. Nevertheless, even married priests will not solve our problem. Protestant churches with married and female clergy face the same clergy shortage as we do. The problem is the result of societal shifts and should not be blamed on Roman Catholic policies alone.

So What Are Some Possible Future Scenarios?

One way to think about an uncertain future is to tell stories about how it might look.

Bill, Casey, and Karen have developed a set of possible scenarios for our future. You were given a handout that describes them. I found them to be helpful and stimulating ways to think about the future, but, like all such exercises, they are not predictions. The future is known only to God. Nevertheless, theologians tell us that we co-create the future with God.

All of the scenarios involve communities working together cooperatively. From past experience, we have learned that we must work together and plan together, co-creating a future that reflects our highest ideals and values, or we will inherit a future that dishonors the Church called together in Christ’s name.

Pastoral Planning for the New Millennium was the beginning of a process of looking beyond an individual parish to include the needs of neighboring faith communities as well. We must continue that journey and extend our relationship beyond our proximate geographic neighbors to all the parishes and faith communities of the Diocese. It is all too easy to read about the closing of St. Francis of Assisi church in Rochester, the consolidation of six parishes of Southern Cayuga, the merger of the four Corning-Painted Post parishes and to think, “Thank God that’s not happening here. That is awful but it is their problem.”

That all-too-human response is not the thinking of a follower of Christ who realizes that what happens in any parish or any community of the Diocese cannot be irrelevant to him or her. We are all part of the Body of Christ and thus all part of our diocesan church. Within the parameters of the law of the Church, we must work out ways in which all our parishes – urban, suburban, and rural – reflect a unity of concern and action on behalf of all. This may require those blessed with great material resources to share their richness with those who struggle; it may require that those who struggle receive assistance graciously. This will require of all a humility and empathy of spirit that will shine as an example of how we are to be church in our time and in our place.

How Will We Do The Next Round of Planning?

We can think theoretically about the future: what it will be like, and how we will respond? But we must also plan concretely. We know that in 2002 the first class of planning groups will start planning for the next five years. How they approach that planning is a question to which we must have an answer in less than a year from now. I would like to discuss this important question by talking about what you can count on from me in this process and what I need to have from you.

What can you count on from me?

First, Companionship

You can count on me to be with you as we walk together through this process. We will be facing difficult issues, but we will face them together. I will be available; I will listen; I will respond. For 22 years, I have been blessed with responsibility for the pastoral care of this Diocese. I have tried always to be guided by my faith and by your faith in the continuing presence of Jesus among us.

Second you can expect from me a clear set of criteria to assess parish vitality and viability

In Pastoral Planning for the New Millennium we used indicators that were both qualitative and quantitative. There was no attempt to “norm” this information. Rather our focus was on gathering the information in consistent and accurate formats and displaying the results for use by parish and planning group leadership teams. With several years of experience, and greater accuracy in the underlying data, we can now contextualize the information for an individual parish or faith community. Vitality criteria can be clearer and more evaluative.

We need to have a standard approach to evaluating the vitality of our parishes and faith communities. Should we continue to assign priest as pastors or pastoral administrators to parishes that have not been able to generate at least median levels of vitality? If all parishes cannot be retained, are the least developed to be discontinued? Or, are the least developed to become our priority? At some point, we will have to ask the question: If we cannot support all parishes, which ones will no longer be supported? Can we reorganize a group of communities into a single canonical parish, but continue with multiple worship sites as though they were multiple parishes? We need greater realism and judgment. If some of our parishes become “chapels of ease” – where Eucharist is only celebrated on occasion – let us do that honestly without simulating a parish where there truly is none.

However we measure vitality, I believe that we need to establish a minimum level of activity. There can be a point at which it is not a responsible use of resources to continue a parish. Let’s take an extreme example of a parish where nothing takes place other than Sunday Eucharist. There is no faith formation program, no sacramental preparation, no youth or young adult ministry, no ministry to sick and dying, no senior ministry, no social ministry. Even the Sunday liturgy lacks life. The worship space is half-empty. There is no active participation by the congregation. There are no liturgical ministers. But the building is well taken care of and the parish accounts are balanced and in order. Does such a community have a claim on a priest pastor or pastoral administrator when we do not have enough of both to serve all of our parishes?

Or vice-versa. The parish is alive in all the areas mentioned above except it is in debt and its expenses continue to outpace its revenues?

If these are extreme examples, what about a parish that has some of these pastoral activities but lacks any outreach to the spiritual and material needs of its community? What about a parish that does not tithe its resources to those in greater need? What about a parish that refuses to train its volunteers so they can provide the best possible ministry?

Whether we use the pastoral goals identified in the Synod or recast them into a different framework, we need to focus on the true life and vitality of the parish. A promising direction is to use vitality indicators derived from the various aspects of the four-fold mission of the church (word, worship, community, and service) as well as the parish’s ability to sustain itself financially and physically.

Third, you can expect from me a clear statement of the issues facing each planning group and its member parishes and faith communities.

We learned a great deal about our parishes during the first round of planning. A careful review of the information now available, along with an assessment of parish vitality and viability, will be part of the information provided to each parish and planning group. In other words, in addition to the analysis and assessment that you will conduct in your parishes and planning groups, we will provide to you a similar analysis by the staff of the Pastoral Center. Sometimes others can see issues and concerns more clearly and objectively because they have the benefit of broad knowledge of many parishes and because they are not personally involved in the life of a faith community.


As we move into this next round, it is important that we keep some constraints in mind. Our process should always stimulate and nurture creativity, and that creativity must deal forthrightly with the realities and constraints we face.

Priest Personnel Policies

There are constraints that place limits on the life and work of our priests. They are based on canon law, local diocesan legislation, and common sense.

Three Mass Limit

No priest may say more than three Masses of Sunday obligation each weekend. This is a requirement of canon law and it accords with good sense.

Pastoral Administrators

As I mentioned earlier, pastoral administrators will be eligible to apply for any pastoral leadership opening.

Priests From Other Dioceses

Priests from outside our diocese are valued members of the diocesan clergy. Their presence in our diocese has benefited them and us as well. However, since most dioceses in the world have fewer priests than we, in justice we cannot actively recruit priests from other dioceses to minister here. In truth, we should be considering sharing our priestly abundance with those less fortunate.

Retired Priests

At my request, Priest Personnel is working out policies that will permit me to assign retired priests or teams of retired priests who have expressed interest in continuing to provide sacramental and pastoral ministry. This will be done in a way that does not compromise or diminish their retirement benefits. It is important to understand that this does not provide a solution to the declining number of priests, but rather permits those who wish to extend their service somewhat beyond normal retirement.

Role of Deacons

I have asked the Deacon Personnel Board to develop a set of policies that, while respecting family and job responsibility needs, will result in the assignment of deacons to the parishes and faith communities most in need of the sacramental ministries and preaching of deacons.

Sunday Eucharist

Sunday Eucharist remains at the center of the life of each parish. No parish or faith community that functions as a parish can on a routine basis continue without a Sunday Eucharist. As a diocese, we have guidelines for Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest. These guidelines are for emergency situations only and do not envision a Sunday Celebration in the Absence of Priest as a regular feature of a parish or faith community. It is essential that we respect these guidelines, lest it appear that something that might look like a Eucharist is taken to be Eucharist. While we face more difficult times ahead, we will be far from the situation that prevails in many parts of the world where is not possible to have Sunday Eucharist in every parish. We must not let our need for convenience or our habits lead us into questionable practice.

Whatever the long term future may hold, over the next five years of the planning process weekly Sunday Eucharist must be part of the life of every parish.

A comment about the relationship between number of priests and parishes:

There is and must be some relationship between the number of priests and the number of parishes that can reasonably be supported. We’ve avoided setting arbitrary standards However, the adverse impact of continuing the same number of parishes with a declining number of priests argues for a clearer norm. Given the canonical limit on the number of Masses to be said by a priest and the centrality of Sunday Eucharist, a full time priest should logically be responsible for no more than three parishes or worship sites. A single priest cannot effectively serve clusters of four or more parishes or worship sites either as pastor or sacramental minister. Such a setting would require more than one priest. These are not rigid rules. Other sacramental ministry support, size of staff and other factors need to be considered. But there is a limit to what we can reasonably and justly expect from even the best of our pastoral leaders.

Priest Personnel strategic plan for 2025

All of the above notwithstanding, how we answer those questions in 2025 may differ from the way we would today. To make sure that we are moving toward that future rather than simply making minor adjustments while we play for time, I have asked Priest Personnel to provide me, and then you, with its best judgment of the way that our limited number of priests will be assigned in that year, 2025. In addition, I will ask them to provide us their best estimates of the number of priests to be available to each planning group in a way that is consistent with this longer-term view. It is important that you keep the 2025 expectations in view as you develop your five-year plans. As difficult as it may be, your short-term planning must be compatible with the long-term expectations. To do otherwise would be to pretend that we do not know what we know all too well.

To prepare for this important next step, I will be consulting with the Priests’ Council and the Stewardship Council about the best way to involve the people of the Diocese. I am especially mindful of the experience that you and your and your colleagues in pastoral planning would bring to such an understanding.

My view of the future

I do not, my dear friends, want to pass on to my successor problems and issues that we are capable of dealing with and do not simply because they are difficult or disagreeable. Each generation of the Church must go through its own Passover from death to life in order to prepare the Church for the next generation. We face wonderful opportunities and challenging problems. An honest and full experience of both will allow us to be open to the creative power of the Spirit. God has a difficult time operating in illusion and delusion. God revels in a sense of reality. The vitality of parishes and faith communities will continue to be our highest priority. But that vitality may very well look different. We are likely to have more non-Eucharistic wedding and funeral liturgies presided over by deacons and possibly by lay ecclesial ministers – professionally trained, caring pastoral ministers. We are likely to have fewer hospital and nursing home visits from priests and more from lay ecclesial ministers, trained, caring pastoral ministers, as well as trained, caring volunteers. We are likely to have more lay people managing the financial and administrative functions of parishes. Our joint task assisted by the Spirit as always, is to find ways for the Church of Rochester to remain vital and, in fact, to become even more vital and vibrant with these challenges.


I look forward to our dialog here today and throughout the next year as we prepare for the next round of planning. I end where I began: I cannot imagine a group of people with whom I would rather journey than the people of this Diocese, and I thank you very, very much.

Tags: Bishop Matthew H. Clark
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