Not long ago, I was invited by the Rochester Rotary Club to speak on the subject of the “State of the Diocese of Rochester,” which I subtitled, “Celebrating the Past and Embracing the Future.” I feel it is a good summary of my view of that important question and, while geared to this Rochester audience, really applies everywhere we serve. I wish to share these thoughts with you and thank you in advance for your attention in what will be a little bit longer reading. What follows is an edited text, updated where necessary, in two parts. The second will run in the Catholic Courier in August.
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I will not so much dwell on our history, or we might be here until this evening, for the diocese is now 141 years old. We were formed by papal decree on March 3, 1868. We have grown considerably since then: The new Diocese of Rochester, carved out of the Diocese of Buffalo, had about 54,500 Catholics. The diocese was led by Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid, our longest-serving bishop. The average Catholic was socio-economically poor. There were 35 parish churches and 29 mission churches. By contrast, today we have 131 parishes and approximately 314,000 Catholics.
Between then and now is a long and wonderfully rich history, to be sure. It is one of people building up the pioneer land that was Rochester in mid-19th century with great sacrifice and devotion to their faith, to give us the diocese we know today. It is the story of how many diverse groups of people, sons and daughters of many nations, came together in a common purpose and mission, overcoming many hurdles and trying their best in faith to build the Kingdom of God.
In every way, that theme continues to this very day.
As in all human history, we are what our times have made us, and we could not move forward into the future without the strong foundation, physical and spiritual, that our ancestors constructed for us.
Today, I would rather talk about the circumstances, challenges and opportunities that present themselves to us now and as we move forward to our 150th anniversary. Although we are a community stretching over 12 counties in the Rochester area, the Finger Lakes region and the Southern Tier of New York state … I will focus mostly on the diocese as you see it daily here in the core area of our population, the Greater Rochester area.
This is the church of Rochester you are most familiar with, and one that is inextricably woven in so many ways into the fabric of this Rochester community that you also serve as business and community leaders. Our diocese has benefitted in ways I could not begin to list from the burgeoning of this area and the quality of life we have all tried to create here. I do not think I would find argument by saying that the people of our diocese, in turn, have helped build and sustain this community. Nor would I think anyone would debate that as Rochester goes, so goes the Diocese of Rochester, and vice versa. We have a stake in each other’s success and vibrancy, and I am glad of it.
If you leave here with a few impressions of the “State of the Diocese” today, I sincerely hope they include the following:
1. That we have and will continue to face enormous challenges and change — sometimes controversial change.
2. That even as we rethink and re-configure to ensure continued vitality, we have much to celebrate and many successes to cherish.
3. That, in addition, we are dealing with these challenges with what I hope is thoughtful, realistic and deliberate action — with the best interests of our own community and the larger community in mind … and with some of the best minds in our area helping us through their good and wise counsel.
4. That our faith-based mission of helping people, of improving the quality of life in our community, always is foremost in our minds. All that we do and plan to do is aimed at preserving and protecting that mission.
5. That despite some reconfiguration in the City of Rochester … we are fully committed to providing ministry in this community and serving the needs of people from all walks of life, especially the poor.
Firstly, I am happy to report that, as a diocese, we are doing very well financially. We are not immune, of course, to the turmoil in the economy and financial markets. All of you most likely have seen your own investments and growth stymied or worse in the past few months especially. We are no different.
Nevertheless, as we near the end of our pledge payment period for our Partners in Faith capital campaign — which to date has raised more than $44 million dollars to build a new theology and ministry school, renovate our cathedral as well as provide much-needed funds for our parishes — we all are amazed at how generous our parishioners really are.
Moreover, thanks to the continued help of our parishioners, this year’s annual Catholic Ministries Appeal (did) very well despite the economic woes facing our nation and the worst consumer confidence in many years. We raised more than $5 million. That speaks to the wonderful enthusiasm for this campaign, now nearly 30 years old, and to the generosity of the people. We could not do what we do without their support.
Generosity indeed abounds, even in these difficult times. Because of it, we have been able to muster the resources to meet a tremendous increase in demand for the services of Catholic Charities across the 12 counties of our diocese during this recession. By all accounts, that increase in request for help is up 100 percent since last September.
In that regard, we continue to monitor daily the subpar performance of our own investments. … We are making budget adjustments as we need to in our operations, always with an eye toward good stewardship.
Good stewardship and accountability are critical in today’s world, especially in financial matters. This is important to us and it is important to our many thousands of donors and to our more than 3,800 full- and part-time employees in our Pastoral Center, parishes, Catholic schools, Catholic Charities and other affiliated agencies. To that end, we regularly have audits done by an independent Rochester-based public- accounting firm and we make both our diocesan and schools financial statements public — on our Web site, www.dor.org, or www.dorschools .org, and in our newspaper.
Just as I am delighted that our financial status is stable in these challenging times, I also have been very much encouraged by our diocesan spiritual health in this increasingly secular age.
Almost two years ago now, we launched an extensive spiritual renewal that we are calling Spirit Alive! I asked that we engage in this three-year effort because I — along with our priests and others — felt the need to reinvigorate ourselves as a people of faith and to bolster our own sense of Christian discipleship.
As well, we felt we needed to reach out in a focused way to the “unchurched” — to those who have stopped attending church regularly for one reason or another and to those who might be looking for a new spiritual home.
Through the use of multimedia, print and broadcast advertisements, a special Web site, printed resources, special gatherings and many parish-based efforts, we have involved thousands of people anew in the lives of their parishes, in reading Scripture, in learning to be better Christians.
While it is no secret that Mass attendance has generally declined since the mid-1960s nationwide — not unlike attendance for other mainline Christian denominations — we saw last year in our own diocese a leveling off of that trend. I can only attribute that leveling off to our Spirit Alive-related efforts.
Even as we engage the people already in the pews through this spiritual renewal, we also are reaching out in new 21st century ways to people we want to welcome back — and especially to attract young people to become active member of our faith communities. This is so important in an age in which all religious groups must vie with Hollywood, the Internet and other media in touching and forming the lives of the young.
We believe it is important for us to engage young people using the means they are most attracted to and the same tools the popular media uses.
For example, we have our own You Tube channel on the Internet (search DioceseofRochester) with many videos, regular and popular “podcasts” on our diocesan Web site.
We are spreading the Good News via videos on DVDs along with the more traditional methods. We are even partially preparing engaged couples for the sacrament of marriage via the Internet — and launched a local Catholic presence on the popular social-networking tool Twitter (www.twitter.com/ rochdiocese). A Facebook presence will be up soon.
Now, I do confess here that I do not always understand the new technology and wouldn’t know where to begin to “friend” someone on Facebook or use Twitter. … I have just recently learned to “Google” pretty well!
But nevertheless, I am delighted that people who do know how to do these things are using these modern tools to grow our church and communicate the Good News.
Even as we attempt to grow in people, we are battling the same situation many of you are dealing with: demographic shifts, and the overall decline in population of our Greater Rochester community. This has had a direct impact on our resources and raised up many issues for us of what is the proper configuration, how can we best use our resources and where we need to be and for whom.
Bishop McQuaid, our first bishop, died in 1909. The population of the city has boomed and busted since that date — but has declined so much in recent years that the population is now about exactly where it was in 1909.
Over the past several decades, migration to the suburbs of vast numbers of Catholics whose ancestors built the ethnic parishes that seemed to dot every neighborhood in Rochester has now doomed those parishes to closure.
Over the past 10 years, we have closed about 10 churches in Rochester, painful as those decisions were and always are. In each and every case, we closed buildings that once had been centerpieces to the lives of the Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles and other ethnic groups … churches once full to the brim every Sunday but now mostly empty.
You may know that through our decade-old program called Pastoral Planning for a New Millennium we have asked parishes and parishioners to plan together in geographic clusters and to make recommendations about how to sustain a presence in the city, preserve ministries and strive to use resources more efficiently.
We truly believe that our ministry must be about people, and not buildings.
Our pastoral-planning program is different than most dioceses, in that we have asked parishes to form planning groups of parishioners and parish leaders and to ponder how to meet the future. Once this process is complete, the groups then make recommendations for my review and approval.
In most cases involving closings, these planning groups have chosen to consolidate buildings and resources and, in many cases, move to a single worship site. Because the parish directly benefits from the sale of closed buildings, each has been able to reinvigorate their financial resources and continue and even grow their city ministries.
I am happy to add that — in the majority of circumstances — the church complexes we have sold have remained churches, many purchased by predominately African-American Protestant congregations, though some buildings are now used as schools. We have been careful in this process and are always striving to ensure that these buildings continue to make a difference in our city and in their neighborhoods.
Above all, please know that our commitment to be a vibrant presence in the City of Rochester is firm.
I would hope that one clear public sign of this is that we chose to make much-needed improvements to our Mother Church, Sacred Heart Cathedral, in a neighborhood with admittedly many challenges. We could have chosen not to do this — to have asked the Holy See for permission to relocate the cathedral to one of our larger suburban parishes. Rather, we spent a considerable amount of resources on Sacred Heart because we believe in that neighborhood and in our ability to help transform it — and in the city as a whole.
We believe we are called to work toward ongoing renewal and sustainability of the City of Rochester. Put simply, we are here to stay. The configuration may be different than in the past decades, when perhaps 40 or more parishes served Catholics and their neighborhoods. We may provide ministry in ways we have not before, but provide ministry we certainly will!
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Look for part two in August.
Peace to all.