National Catholic Register


Chicago Plan Aims to Cure Local Church Woes

Evangelization gets renewed emphasis


September 1, 1996 Issue | Posted 9/1/96 at 2:00 PM


Critics say funding for non- Catholic students at risk

CAN THE NATION'S second largest diocese, grappling with low church attendance, flagging financial support and fewer priests, become a model of success at evangelization?

The Archdiocese of Chicago is intent on it. Two years ago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin launched an ambitious strategic plan, called Decisions, to guide the archdiocese into the next century. Decisions called for a renewed emphasis on evangelization/education and ministerial leadership.

Now nearly halfway through the process, the archdiocese is training lay ministers, has created a parish-based program to increase racial sensitivities, has helped more than 100 parishes boost Sunday collections and will conduct on-site evaluations of priests. Altogether, the archdiocese has reached 14 of its 40 goals and is making headway on others.

“The Church in Chicago will be significantly different by the year 2000,” said Mercy Sister Mary Brian Costello, the cardinal's chief of staff. “The plan is coming together. Some pieces swiftly and others more slowly.”

The goals of Decisions were established after broad input, first from archdiocesan administrative leaders and consultative bodies and then from more than 8,000 Catholics at parishes. If nothing else, Decisions mobilized Catholics and forced them to confront basic issues. It created energy to address the problems facing their parishes, schools and the Church at large.

Yet some question if any amount of diocesan planning can alleviate broad Church issues like the priest shortage, alienated Catholics and poor financial support. And Decisions has been criticized by some priests at poor, African- American parishes in Chicago who question if the Church is turning inward and abandoning evangelization among non-Catholics.

When Decisions began, Chicago, much like other dioceses, was beset by a wide assortment of problems. The number of active diocesan priests had gone from 937 to 767 for its 380 parishes. The archdiocese predicted only 561 priests would be active by the year 2,000, and most of them would be graying.

Regular Mass attendance for the 2.3 million Catholics in the Chicago area was somewhere between 25 and 30 percent. The financial outlook was gloomy as well. Chancery operations were in the red, but the real bleeding was at parishes where giving had been stagnant. Unless changes were made, the parishes were expected to post a staggering $27 million deficit by the end of the century. This was especially dismaying to archdiocesan officials in light of the 46 parishes and schools they had closed in 1990 to address a shortfall then.

Yet Decisions was conceived chiefly as a boost to evangelization/education and ministerial leadership. “We should be involved in this type of planning even if we had all the money in the world,” Cardinal Bernardin said when the program was launched. “I would like to think we are mission-driven and not money-driven. Our purpose is to enhance the mission of the Church.”

Most of the 40 goals revolve around priests, parishes or lay leadership. Decisions calls for increased recruiting for the priesthood, professional development and spiritual renewal for priests, and more effective deployment of priests.

At the parish level, Decisions requires an evaluation of Sunday worship and sacramental celebrations and participation in homily improvement programs for all authorized to preach. The program also calls for seeking out and training lay leaders of diverse backgrounds and for developing standards of preparation for all ministers. A $225,000 scholarship fund was set up to help train the laity.

A number of goals are supposed to be achieved each year, and all of them by 1999. The cardinal's much-publicized battle with cancer has not slowed down Decisions, said Sister Costello.

Archdiocesan officials are particularly proud of Decisions' impact on its Parish Sharing program. For years parishes in more affluent areas, paired off with parishes in poor areas, have shared financial resources. Parishioners also meet socially or at church to help break down barriers caused by different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The Parish Sharing program, though successful, was reinvigorated through Decisions. Parishes that had been lukewarm toward the program took a renewed interest in it, especially after the cardinal issued a pastoral statement on parish sharing. As with other components of Decisions, putting a spotlight on a problem or issue has led to concrete results.

“We've created an environment that didn't exist before,” said Sister Costello. “Decisions gave us a certain energy. We're looking at the issues now and grappling with them.”

Another chief accomplishment was helping parishes increase their Sunday collections. Guided by the Development Office, dozens of parishes that took part in a special offertory program saw collections rise between 25 to 33 percent. Today, archdiocesan finances remain a key concern, but officials insist there will be no repeat of the massive closings of 1990.

Still to be implemented is a pilot program in parishes to ease racial distrust. In highly segregated Chicago, parishes have seen changing neighborhoods undergo complete racial turnover. Other parishes have suffered racial tension, typically between Hispanics new to the parish and well-established ethnic whites who resent changes in Liturgy and parish governance. A Decisions document bluntly decried “a lack of unity and harmony in some parishes and the withdrawal of members of ethnic groups from others.”

Indeed, another key concern of the archdiocese is meeting the needs of the growing Hispanic population. More than 23 percent of archdiocesan Catholics are Hispanic, yet relatively few clergy or parish staff share those roots. One goal of Decisions is to train ministers to run Hispanic-influenced Liturgies.

Decisions also calls for making a Catholic school education available to every Catholic child. Regional schools, as opposed to parish schools, likely will be formed in some areas, meaning some schools will consolidate and many school parents will be angered.

But the part of Decisions that worries inner-city priests and principals is a reevaluation of diocesan aid to schools with large African-American, frequently non-Catholic, populations. Some Catholics and Church leaders have quietly questioned for years why the diocese generously funds schools with few Catholics while the needs of Hispanics and other mostly Catholic ethnic groups are supposedly not met.

Decisions calls for continuation of the Big Shoulders Fund, a non-profit, non-sectarian group begun by the cardinal to raise money among corporations and individuals for inner-city schools. The archdiocese also pledges to keep supplementing well-attended and needy parish schools. But Decisions also ominously asks each parish to “discern realistically how much it can provide for year to year education of non-Catholic students” and calls for “new standards for recipients of grants.”

Decisions' effects on black parishes have been called into question by some critics. One priest at a thriving black parish in a low-income area criticized Decisions as directing evangelization at fallen-away Catholics and ignoring the pressing need to evangelize among blacks, who are a quarter of the 5.5 million people in the archdiocese yet represent less than 5 percent of all Catholics.

Still, the larger question remains as to the overall effectiveness of Decisions. Can a large diocese retool itself in a few years? And is broad consultation the best way to do it?

Sister Costello said involving ordinary Catholics in planning is precisely the right way to effect change. Catholics need to be encouraged not to be parochial, to recognize that the Church extends beyond parish boundaries.

“We've told people for 150 years to make parish life vibrant, ‘Good you've done that. Now let's be concerned about the wider Church,’” said Sister Costello.

Father William Kenneally, pastor of St. Gertrude Parish in Chicago, said Decisions helped his parish rethink itself. Several parishioners were deeply involved in the process. Later on, following the Decisions program, St. Gertrude analyzed itself. It decided a chief need was evangelization of teens.

But the parish still has not developed a way to evangelize teens. “That might be the way it works with the diocese, too,” said Father Kenneally. “We determined our priorities and said what our problems are. But we still don't know what to do.”

Still, Father Kenneally endorsed Decisions and its consultative model. “It's easy to criticize the cardinal and his ‘liberal fuzziness.’ But it's the right way. It was broad-based and brought in lay people. Whether in the long run it willbring about smoother change, I don't know.”

Jay Copp is based in Chicago.