National Affairs Correspondent

NEW YORK — The future of the Church in the United States, and sometimes its difficult present, were hinted at in the table discussions and presentations at a symposium in a mid-town Manhattan hotel conference room here Jan.9-11.

Some 30 diocesan planners from across the country gathered under the auspices of the National Pastoral Life Center, a New York-based organization that consults dioceses on parish life.They were sharing nitty-gritty details about how to plan for a Church with fewer priests and increasing numbers of Catholics.Many of the participants had stories to tell about making changes in dioceses — often in places where Catholics are reluctant to let go of historic churches that became underutilized due to population shifts — and bringing American Catholics to the realization that their Church will have to change.

A number of participants at the conference came from dioceses where the there are fewer priests available than there are parishes to staff.Planners have long been struggling with the problem of providing ministry in parishes — many of them rural or in cities largely abandoned by Catholics — that frequently do not have resident priests.

“It has not been done without difficulties.It's been messy,” Mercy Sister Kathleen Turley, chancellor of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., told the conference.The Diocese of Albany has been undergoing a planning process for the past nine years that has resulted in the closing of nine parishes and the consolidation of services in numerous others.

Turley, representing a diocese with 189 parishes and 238 active diocesan priests, echoed the consensus of conference participants that planning for the future involves difficult choices and requires the participation of many. “The constant challenge is how to get more people involved,” she said, noting that some 1,500 parishioners — out of about 400,000 total Catholics in the Diocese of Albany — have participated in the planning process.The results include the hiring of parish administrators, who are not priests, to attend to the business of running a parish.

Jeannine Burch, pastoral planner for the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, said that planning for the future requires input from parishioners. “They need to know that it's not downtown (the diocesan chancery) coming in and saying ‘do it our way.’” As in many areas of the country, Toledo has experienced an exodus of Catholics from its central city into the suburbs.The diocese has 150 active diocesan priests to serve 163 parishes.The result is that parishes have been called together to discuss ways to share resources.One cluster of four city parishes has been redesigned so that it is served by one pastor with five priest associates.

Burch noted that while parishes have expressed support for sharing religious education and other programs with nearby churches, parishioners are generally not supportive of having parishes run by lay administrators.There is, she said, a preference among much of the laity for clergy, even in areas where there are few priests.

Father David Baldwin, director of the Office of Research & Planning for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said that leadership plays a crucial role in charting the future of any diocese.He said there is a healthy middle ground between “total dictatorship” — in which a bishop alone decides the future of parishes — and offering no guidance at all and “abdicating the responsibility that leadership should have.”

The archdiocese closed some 30 parishes during the tenure of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in an effort to reduce costs and adjust to a Catholic population that has moved in great numbers to the suburbs, leaving behind many underutilized city churches.The archdiocese is now planning the future of its 280 elementary schools and 41 high schools.The process, said Baldwin, is continuing in the archdiosesan offices, with input from local business and educational leaders.A plan will be presented by late summer to Chicago-area pastors and parish leaders.

In informal group discussions, planning leaders indicated that change in any diocese is a difficult process, even when facts indicate that parishes need to close or consolidate.One planner from a Midwestern diocese noted that “there is a denial of reality” among some pastors and parishioners attached to fading parishes. “Parishioners saw a priest in their parish celebrating Mass on each Sunday.So they didn't come to grips with the reality,” she said about a rural parish that the diocese recently closed despite protests from parishioners.

Brian Reynolds, chief administrative officer for the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., commented that closing parishes will meet stiff resistance, no matter how smooth the process. “When the final decision is made, people forget that they were consulted.They look for a scapegoat,” he said about the Louisville experience, in which eight parishes were closed in recent years.

“It's painful when people lose something that is important to them,” he said, adding that when institutions close, people need time to grieve.Reynolds noted that one Louisville parish that closed had dwindled to only a few regular parishioners.But its final Mass attracted a huge crowd, as those who were raised in the parish and had moved to the suburbs returned for the farewell.Ironically, if the parish had received such support when it was still alive, the archdiocese never would have closed it.

Reynolds emphasized that more than just financial criteria must be considered when making decisions about closing parishes. It's important, he said, for diocesan planners “to get ahead of the curve” and explore the total ministry needs of a community, not just looking at bottom line finances.

“We wanted to avoid the survival of the fittest,” he said, noting that some parishes, which were relatively affluent but which generated little active parish life, were closed.At the same time, financially-poorer parishes, such as those in Louisville's housing projects, remain open because they provided an active social ministry outreach.

One Midwestern diocesan planner complained that wealthier suburban parishes are often reluctant to share resources with their poorer urban counterparts.An effort to “twin” more affluent parishes with those that are poor has stagnated in her area, due to the reluctance of wealthier Catholics to support such a program. This is so, she noted, even in cases where the same parishes provide support for missions in Third World countries. “They don't want to accept the poor who live within two miles of them.We have mission needs in our own diocese,” she said.

Pastoral planners agreed, however, that tough decisions can be made if the following criteria are followed:

•Involve priests and laity in the process.Without collaboration, difficult decisions will not garner needed support.

•Get the support of the local bishop for any proposal made.

•Don't allow anyone to circumvent the decision-making process, by, for example, going around a planning committee to a chancery source to protect a fading school or parish.

•Don't “re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic” by simply renaming the status quo, thereby avoiding difficult decisions.

Peter Feuerherd is based in New York.