Pittsburgh Diocese Reorganizes Parishes for Future Evangelization

Church consolidation will secure new growth, says Bishop David Zubik.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh
St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh (photo: J.W. Ramp/Wikipedia)

PITTSBURGH — Bishop David Zubik’s vision for “The Church Alive” in the Diocese of Pittsburgh envisions each parish having a full set of ministries, beautiful, inviting liturgies and a paid staff to help parishes carry out these parts of their evangelizing mission.

But the bishop now faces some tough decisions in order to get there. An advisory panel has recommended a massive consolidation of the number of parishes in the diocese in order to position the local Church for dedicated evangelization and the possibility of future growth.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh announced in early September that it would eventually reduce the number of parish entities from 188 parishes to 48 parishes. Each parish grouping is expected to average two to three church sites, ultimately reducing the diocese's current 225 church sites down to 150 or fewer.

But Bishop Zubik told the Register the reorganization of parishes is not about simple restructuring, but making sure that each parish finally has the full resources it needs to evangelize their neighborhoods and bring people back into the Church.

The final parish groupings will be announced in April, and the clergy teams will be assigned after that. The changes will not happen overnight. Even after the parish mergers, officials see the consolidations taking up to five years, and parishes will have to propose to the bishop which buildings to keep and which to shutter.

Bishop Zubik said the restructuring is aimed at positioning the Church for future growth through evangelization, not “managing the decline.”

“It is all about evangelizing and deepening our relationships with Jesus Christ,” he said. “It is about inviting people to be involved in the growth of the Church.”


Stark Realities

According to the diocese’s statistics, the Catholic population has declined by 121,000 over the past 16 years, when the diocese counted 753,000 Catholics in 2000. Weekly Mass attendance across the diocese also dropped in 2016 to 138,000 Catholics, a decline of 108,000 since 2000. Internal figures at the diocese estimate that 10,000 fewer Catholics attended Mass in the diocese in the past year alone.

The diocesan figures show 21% of Catholics attend Mass on a regular basis, down from a third of Catholics attending regularly in 2000. Similarly, the diocese has seen drops between 40%-50% in marriages, baptisms, confirmations, first Communions and K-8 enrollment in Catholic schools.

Approximately 50% of all parishes now operate in the red, up from 32% three years ago.

The diocese is also facing a 50% drop in active, working clergy — from an estimated 210 to 112 priests — over the next eight years. By contrast, the number of working priests in the diocese declined approximately 37% over a period of 16 years, when the diocese counted 338 active priests in 2000.

Linda Ritzer, associate general secretary for the diocese and member of the “On Mission Commission” that made the recommendations for parish groupings, said the commission’s aim is “reorganization for the sake of growth.”

On Mission Commission developed diocesan pastoral priorities, proposed parish groupings and discussed with parishes how to realign the structure of the diocese to best serve the Church’s mission and ministry. Over the course of a year, the commission did 475 on-site consultations throughout the diocese’s 21 districts and gained feedback from the parishes regarding the proposed groupings.

Growth Through Evangelization

The aim is to anticipate as far as possible the challenges facing the local Church and prepare parishes to thrive in their mission to proclaim the Gospel to the people within their territorial boundaries. Part of the criteria, developed in consultation with the Catholic Leadership Institute, was that a parish should be able to project financial solvency for 20 years, and each new parish structure should be able to deliver on pastoral care to Catholics in each stage of life, such as ministry to youth, young adults, families and the elderly.

The diocese had also implemented parish “On Mission” teams to see how the lay faithful and the clergy could collaborate together effectively in evangelization.

Ritzer explained the reorganization is much more than making sure parishes are able to pay their bills and have the clergy needed to say Mass.

The last round of wide-scale parish closings in the diocese, which took place 1992-94 under then-Bishop Donald Wuerl, just aimed at reducing the number of parishes, after seeing a population decline of 100,000 Catholics. The diocese went from 332 parishes to 218 parishes, but still had a hefty 450 priests total.

Ritzer explained the restructuring has been thought about intentionally, in terms of making sure the Church in Pittsburgh has the financial resources at the disposal of the clergy and lay teams at each parish to foster “missionary discipleship for the growth of the Church.”

She said the commission has been in consultation with the faithful, and now they will move in consultation with the priest council. They want to make sure they have the “right combination for parishes to create a vibrant community.”

The diocesan process will wrap up by the end of the year, and then Bishop Zubik will have four months to review the recommendations and pray, before announcing the final decision in April 2018.


Larger Picture of Demographics

The demographic shifts happening in the U.S. are having a huge impact on the Church’s numbers, according to Father Thomas Gaunt, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. He pointed out that Pittsburgh leads the pack for dioceses with the largest decrease in Catholic population.

“They’re really facing a fiscal catastrophe in maintaining all these facilities,” he said, as parishes once built to support 1,000 people are being supported by 100.

 Effective evangelization, Father Gaunt said, depends on knowing facts — the Northeast faces challenges to its existing structures due to a population drain of Catholics that is following an overall trend of people flocking toward the economic growth in the Sunbelt.

“A part of this is simply that younger people have moved out to where the money and the jobs are,” Father Gaunt said. 

A Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College study showed Pittsburgh suffered a large loss of young people due to outmigration: The flight of young people in their 20s between 1970 and 2000 played a significant role in the region's population decline as they followed the jobs, settled down and had children elsewhere. The study found, "Had the Pittsburgh region had a neutral net migration rate between 1970 and 2000, the year 2000 population would have been nearly 3 million, as opposed to the actual figure of 2.35 million [in 2000]."

The Catholic population has remained fairly stable as a percentage of the U.S. population, Father Gaunt said, but it has redistributed to the South and West. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s data in 1950, 46% of Catholics lived in the Northeast; 30% in the Midwest; 12% in the South; and 12% in the West. By 2010, the data showed 28% of Catholics lived in the Northeast; 23% in the Midwest; 24% in the South; and 25% in the West.

He pointed out that the Archdiocese of Atlanta, for example, has grown from 100,000 Catholics in the 1980s to more than a million now, due to the demographic shift.

The Church, he said, should not despair about its ability to evangelize — provided it has the resources to evangelize effectively. Father Gaunt pointed out that the Church in the South and West has serious pastoral challenges because parishes built for 500 families are struggling to care for the needs of 3,000 families or more, let alone fit them into a parking lot a half-hour before Mass. Consequently the data, he said, shows lower rates of parish and sacramental participation than the North and Midwest.

Father Gaunt said that the Church has to create sustainable, viable parish communities, so they have the resources to evangelize and grow. Otherwise, the populations will get smaller, and they will have even fewer resources and people to rely on for ministry and evangelization, putting such parishes in a tailspin. The importance of the demographic data and the lower participation data is that the Church has to consolidate its resources so it can actually have the resources and staff to evangelize in order to grow the Church.

On average, he said, a parish of 500 households is viable to sustain liturgical ministers, outreach and the parish community, plus pay its bills.


Concerns for the Future

Father Donald Breier, the retired rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh, told the Register that the current campaign is producing positive fruit by getting laymen and women to take an active role in parish leadership and engagement. He said the diocese needs “an evangelization that is up-to-date.”

“We’ve got to reach the adults,” he said. But the priest is also concerned that the consolidation might be going too far and that the priests could lose touch with their role as nurturing the community life of the parish.

“It was always part of my priesthood, part of my youth,” he recalled.

Father Breier also expressed concern about the “collateral damage” that will come with the parish consolidation. Right now, he said, approximately 25% of Catholics in Pittsburgh show up for Mass, and the statistics show as many as three out of 10 churchgoing parishioners may drop out of the Church, either temporarily or permanently, due to consolidation.

Father Breier said he is particularly concerned for inner-city parishes, “where all you have left are the elderly.”

“I worry that they might be forgotten,” the priest said. Traveling 10-15 miles to another church is more difficult for the elderly, and public transportation is not a good option for many. He does not want to see the elderly bereft of worshipping with others at Mass, left with just watching it on television while waiting for a Eucharistic minister to come by with Communion.

Edward Hoyt, a parishioner at St. Paul Roman Catholic Church in Butler, Pennsylvania, told the Register: “The real issue is the shift and loss of the population as a whole.” Not only has the Pittsburgh Diocese lost many Catholics, but suburban parishes have experienced rapid growth as the population moves and builds new churches.

Hoyt expressed concern that the “legacy of faith” in some parishes, where the men and women in the pews sit in the same church their grandparents actually built, will be forgotten and ignored in the consolidations. It can be particularly painful when new churches, with none of this history of faith and sacrifice, are favored over older ones.

“It’s sad to see something like that go away.”

Still, he recognizes that the priest shortage in the next decade is a looming problem for the diocese. Having priests offer eight to 10 Masses on a weekend “is pretty rough.”

“You can see the strain on them,” he said.


Good Fruits Beginning

Jim Zern, a parishioner at St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, and a member of the parish “On Mission” team, said he is overall positive about this strategic initiative as a “way to evangelize the unchurched.”

“I was one of the people wondering why we were doing it the way we were,” he said, saying he originally thought evangelization should come before any structural reorganization. But he said the constant communication between the diocese and the parish has been “very good.”

And Zern said the parish needs to have the resources to evangelize people, particularly the youth, and on its own the parish is just not able to afford the paid staff it needs to conduct ministries dedicated to evangelization and outreach and making sure the liturgy has beautiful music.

Zern recognizes that the reorganization is not an easy undertaking for Bishop Zubik, adding that parishes will not get what they all want. While he is “positive” the diocese needs to go in this direction, he said the next steps will be “tough.”

“The challenge is: We have to deliver on this,” he said. “Once this happens, people have to see the positive changes.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.