Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When Mergers Hit (Back) Home

My home diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, recently announced its plans for parish mergers and closings after a lengthy investigation by a panel of priests. The priests made their recommendation to Bishop John M. D'Arcy, who today made public the recommendations and which recommendations he planned to accept or place on hold for the time being.

The report is available in full on the local daily's Web page. In it, Bishop D'Arcy makes clear his belief that, between the thinning ranks of priests, the tenuous presence of numerous overseas priests and that these decisions should not be left to a new bishop (D'Arcy's retirement is believed to be coming soon), these mergers and closings are a necessary move for the health of the diocese and responsible stewardship of resources.

While it was picked up by the Associated Press and Chicago Tribune, this isn't really a national story. But our office still receives media inquiries on this issue, which confronts bishops and parishioners alike across the country. The Fort Wayne-South Bend plan is fairly standard for a mid-sized Midwestern diocese. Counting both the recommendations the bishop accepts and those he wants to wait on, this plan involves 22 of the diocese's 80 parishes, 33 if one takes into accounts larger parishes that would be drawn into twinnings and mergers with the smaller parishes.

This plan struck a personal note in that, included among the 22 parishes, was my parish home prior to relocating to Washington, St. Mary's in Fort Wayne. About this parish, Bishop D'Arcy offers:

The grand history of this parish is well-known. Established in 1848, nine years before the establishment of the Diocese of Fort Wayne, this parish has won the respect of the wider community in recent decades for its ministry to those in need, especially the Soup Kitchen, the granting of scholarships to Catholic Schools for African-American children and others, the foundation of the Matthew 25 Clinic for those without health insurance and Vincent Village for homeless families.
He goes on to accept the recommendation that the parish be joined with Fort Wayne's cathedral, which is two blocks away, retaining one Sunday Mass at St. Mary's, all of this pending further consultation with the parish and the presbyteral council.

As long as I'm experiencing this reality of contemporary Catholic life firsthand, it's a good opportunity to highlight a few aspects of this issue, an issue on which spokespersons from the USCCB usually have nothing to say to the media.

First, it's striking that St. Mary's, like most of the parishes in this plan, will not be closed outright. The bishop doesn't even recommend that it be merged, but rather "joined" with the cathedral. I presume this means the same priests will oversee and offer Mass at both places. Now, one of the charming qualities of St. Mary's is that, as its numerous ministries suggest, the parishioners are hyper-involved in the life of their parish, which I imagine would allow its individual identity to shine, even if administratively the parish were to lose its autonomy.

Looking at the bigger picture, this reveals a silver lining of sorts with the issue of parish mergers -- it's not a black and white issue of who stays open and who gets shut down, who lives and who dies. The vast majority of recommendations in the Fort Wayne-South Bend plan say that a parish should be joined to another, or that one should oversee the other, usually with the recommendation that at least a weekly Mass continue at the parish that's getting the short end of the deal. Only in a couple of instances are parishes truly merged or shuttered.

This isn't surprising when one takes into account that Bishop D'Arcy's own childhood parish in the Archdiocese of Boston has since been closed. This is someone with empathy for people and the loss of their parish homes. This is also someone who's fond of quoting Pope Benedict's line about the church having an obligation to provide the Eucharist, "but not in every hamlet," or as Bishop D'Arcy interprets, "not on every street corner." No wonder St. Mary's, at two blocks from the cathedral, is on the list.

Another noteworthy detail of this plan is that the decisions regarding each parish are usually pending further discussion with both the parish and the presbyteral council, meaning that nothing is set in stone, that ultimately, when a decision is made and action is taken, it will be a course of action that has involved everyone along the way and is something that everyone involved can own.

This, more than anything, might explain why media never get a good answer from the USCCB when they call about this issue. It's not supposed to be an issue that's passed down from on high, from a conference of bishops or elsewhere. It's best handled not even at the parish level, but at the parishioner level, engaging and listening to the people whose lives it will effect and moving forward together in a way that is most beneficial to the church, big and small.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Don:

This popped on Twitter - I don't know if we've ever met - also a former Fort Wayne resident, now in Birmingham.

My view on the St. Mary's situation: I really think that they should have not have rebuilt after the church burned down, and closed the parish, moving the ministries to either the Cathedral or St. Paul's, which then would have probably been able to remain open, rather than sold to the Lutherans, demolished and then made into a parking lot!


I'm surprised St. Henry's is even staying open.