KEUKA PARK — For genuine reality programming, no television was required by the 220 pastoral leaders and pastoral-planning representatives at Keuka College March 12.
Much of Pastoral Planning Leaders Day addressed the ongoing diocesan realities of declining clergy, church closings, multiparish configurations and related changes. Father Patrick Van Durme and Charlotte Bruney, keynote copresenters, set the day’s tone by citing direct experience on this theme.
Father Van Durme said he hit the ground running with big changes when his pastorate began last summer at the newly formed Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Steuben County. For two of four churches, he greeted his flocks by announcing that Sunday liturgy would no longer be held at those sites.
“It wasn’t until my third Mass that I said a church was staying open for Sunday Eucharist,” he said.
Bruney, who serves as pastoral administrator of Churchville’s St. Vincent DePaul in Monroe County, described “little deaths” suffered by her parish since she began there in 1998: losing a full-time pastor and eventually a resident priest; adjusting to a pastoral-administrator model; fewer weekday Masses; and an imminent clustering with two nearby parishes.
“Let’s face it, it’s pretty darn scary,” Bruney remarked.
Bruney emphasized that the impact of such changes should not be buried or sidestepped, saying that “we need to name our losses so we can better understand what we are feeling.” Father Van Durme said it’s anything but simple for people to give up ownership of their church as they knew it. “We taught them to love that place,” he said. “Parochialism is something we taught.”
In one of the day’s workshops, “Forming Clusters/Consolidated Parishes: What We’ve Learned,” a packed classroom of participants discussed financial decisions; differing traditions; the role of retired priests; the canonical three-Mass limit for priests on Sundays; and declining Mass attendance after pastoral-planning changes have occurred.
Therese Shook, from Good Shepherd Catholic Community in southern Cayuga County, noted that in 1983 her region formed the Rochester Diocese’s first cluster configuration. In 1998 this became a single parish with six worship sites and one full-time priest. Since then, the number of Masses in Good Shepherd has been reduced and one church has closed.
“We thought about closing them all and building one church — but the reality is, in five years we may not even have one priest,” Shook said.
Joyce McAndrew, from the newly formed Winton-Culver Catholic Community in Monroe County, said consensus associated with consolidation is hard to come by.
“Be prepared that when you get feedback, you will not get any uniformity,” she said.
Bridget Blanchard, from the Western Wayne (County) Planning Group, said planning leaders encounter resistance not so much when plans are laid out, but when they take effect.” (Parishioners) hear, but it goes from one ear to the other until it happens,” she said.
Even after a plan is finalized, it might be altered due to new developments, such as the vision of a newly appointed priest. “(The plan) is wonderful, but it’s a piece of paper — and it won’t happen the way it’s on paper,” McAndrew said.
Blanchard said harsh parishioner reaction can be minimized by practicing consistent communication in each planning group’s faith communities. Shook said another proactive approach is to weigh assets along with the losses.
“If we can just start from the positive — what have we got?” Shook said.
At the planning day’s closing program, presenters emphasized the need to trust in God, practice tolerance and welcome diversity as previously uncharted waters are navigated. Regarding such labels as “conservative” and “liberal,” Father Van Durme stated, “It’s not ‘either-or.’ The strength is in both.”
“We need to frame decisions so there are not winners and losers, per se,” Bruney added.
Bishop Matthew H. Clark stressed keeping the bigger picture in sight. Although he joked that some people may fear an eventual one-priest, one-parish diocese, he did acknowledge that current trends indicate significantly fewer priests will be available in the years to come. The bishop said it’s vital for the faithful to be supportive, not vindictive, during these transitions.
“It’s not pain-free for me either,” Bishop Clark said. “None of us gets into this kind of thing to cause pain to one another — if we do, then there’s something wrong with us. But inevitably there’s going to be pain associated with these things.”