In his new book, Let Us Dream, in the section “A Time to Choose,” Pope Francis writes, “Coronavirus has accelerated a change of era that was already underway … The categories and assumptions that we used before to navigate our world are no longer effective … It is an illusion to think that we can go back to where we were.”
As parishes emerge from the pandemic worldwide, their members and pastors are eager to return to some sense of normalcy. But they know that things cannot go back to the way they were. Parishes are concerned about attendance and donations that have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, levels that were unsustainable even then. They face strained finances and the shortage of priests.
As a case study, consider my diocese, the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut (AOH). AOH has been in a process of “pastoral and strategic planning” for the past five years, and a synod took place in 2020. In 2017, AOH, which had apparently avoided the tough issue for many years, consolidated hundreds of parishes at once, requiring the closing of 132 of them (currently 131 remain open).
But now, plans are underway for a further consolidation. By the end of this year, many towns will host a single parish, at least administratively. In my town—a municipality of 61,000 residents and at least 20,000 Catholics—seven parishes were merged into three in 2017, and now the three will become one, but with multiple “campuses.” The aim, according to a March 2021 letter from Archbishop Leonard Blair, is “to meet the reality of far fewer priests and Masses in church buildings that rarely if ever are filled to capacity.”
These realities cannot be denied. One might think that this is a bold, rational way of looking forward. Interestingly, though, the Archbishop looks back to a near-past before “the heyday of Catholic practice and housing expansion in Connecticut.” He explained, “We are looking at a ‘municipal model’ for all our parishes, in some cases going back to ‘what once was’ in terms of a ‘mother church’ before suburban growth.” Is this really bold thinking … or bureaucratic thinking justified with a veneer of nostalgia?
I personally fear this round of mergers, because they were not handled well in 2017. Despite language from the Archdiocese that pastoral planning was not simply about mergers and closures, mergers and closures were the primary takeaway for Catholics in the pews. Parishioners worked hard then, and are working hard now, to make the new communities effective. But the reorganization came down like a ton of bricks, with sore feelings and emptier pews in its wake. Catholics didn’t know what was really happening until it happened.
Pope Francis continually identifies dialogue as the crucial practice for all community building, in both church and society. Information is crucial for dialogue. But on the AOH website, there are no links to “pastoral planning” or the 2020 synod, and the search menu on the website turns up nothing. One has to Google to find the relevant website. There, the menu item for “The Plan” is empty.
The COVID year has made all the more apparent that volunteer lay ministry is vital to parish life. Video-streaming of masses, committee meetings on Zoom and socializing and education this past year would not have happened without the laity’s expertise, energy and dedication. Laypeople serve on advisory committees and they run much of what happens in parishes week to week, but they are not yet, as a general rule, incorporated in new, creative ways in shared ministry and participatory governance.
Francis makes clear in Let Us Dream his respect for lay ministry and leadership, including that exercised by women. He has striven “to better integrate the presence and sensibility of women into the Vatican’s decision-making processes,” by appointing women to key posts. He stresses that “an expanded role for women in Church leadership doesn’t depend on the Vatican and is not limited to specific roles.” However, while it is true what the Pope says—that in some places, women run whole Church communities—it is still a rare occurrence. Since 1983, Canon Law has made provision for the role of parish-life coordinator, a layperson who administrates the parish on a day-to-day basis. The Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, did so for the first time in 2018. The establishment of such a role is supposed to be on an emergency basis.
Well, the emergency is here. Like the matters of married priests and women deacons, there are good reasons to explore the idea on its own merits, not just because the shortage of priests will eventually make changes unavoidable. Even tradition is on the side of change. If Archbishop Blair can go back to “what once was” in parish ministry a century ago, cannot the Church consider going back to “what once was” during the first millennium of Christianity?
In Laudato Sí, Francis warns against “trying not to see [problems], trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” Let’s bear that diagnosis in mind as we emerge from the pandemic.
Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.