Clergy shortage, shifting demographics bring need for change in parishes

No one knows the importance of pastoral planning like Monsignor James W. Hannon.

As pastor of six parishes in the westernmost corner of the archdiocese and temporary pastor of three others in Cumberland and Mount Savage, the priest depends on the cooperation of clergy and laity alike.

“Since I have been working in multiple-parish ministry, I have been struck by the importance of working with a team of people – most of whom, of course, are lay Catholics,” Monsignor Hannon said. “We work together for the good of our parishes and for the good of the archdiocese.”

In the face of a clergy shortage and changing demographics, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien is reaching out to the laity and asking them for their input as the archdiocese analyzes the ways parishes live out their mission.

Writing in a letter that was published in parish bulletins and in this issue of The Catholic Review (see Archbishop O’Brien’s column), Archbishop O’Brien called the declining number of priests an “urgent issue,” but added that “the opportunity to create a more dynamic Church that helps people encounter the living God must be our primary goal in planning for the future of our Church.”

Pastoral planning must rely on the “substantial participation of the laity and the clergy,” he said, and it must incorporate the experience of other dioceses. The archbishop said changes must be made “without undue delay” and the auxiliary bishops will play a central role.

Decision-making must incorporate economic realities, he said, and there must be “shared sacrifice” that may include church closures, parish mergers and changes to Mass schedules. Encouraging vocations must be strengthened and any pastoral plan that is developed must clearly define and respect roles. Theological and canonical principles must be “faithfully followed” throughout, he said.

“We can only achieve our goals if we proceed as one, as people of God,” he said, “exhibiting charity, trust, collaboration and coordination throughout the process.”

Monsignor Hannon said it will be critical for parishes to work more cooperatively.

“We are going to have to work in a way that is truly Catholic,” he said, “in a way that sees a more universal reality unfolding in our local Church.”

Monsignor Richard J. Bozzelli, pastor of the Glen Burnie parishes of Holy Trinity, Crucifixion and Good Shepherd, said parishes of his region have been working cooperatively for years. In addition to working locally with his three communities, the pastor also cooperates with St. Bernadette in Severn and St. Philip Neri in Linthicum as part of the North County Cluster in Anne Arundel County.

“The biggest concern I hear is that parishes don’t want to lose their identity,” Monsignor Bozzelli said. “I’ve been asking, ‘Does identity mean each parish has to provide everything to keep its identity? Or, can we identify what each parish does best?’ Perhaps it means that a particular ministry will become primarily located at that parish.”

Monsignor Bozzelli said it has been helpful that he and his two associate pastors celebrate Masses at all three churches. He noted that the entire pastoral staffs in Glen Burnie, from the custodian to the priests, are currently reading a book called “Pastoring Multiple Parishes.”

Father Patrick Carrion, pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore (Holy Cross, St. Mary, Star of the Sea and Our Lady of Good Counsel), said the sharing of resources and closer ties among parishes happens “organically.” His united regional faith community came together over the course of several years, under the leadership of several pastors.

“What works here may not work somewhere else,” he said. “There’s a natural evolution – just like a child growing and developing.”

For parishes that are beginning the process of more in-depth regional planning, Monsignor Hannon urged them to trust in the “collective wisdom” of those working with them.

“Think more regionally – less parish specific,” he said. “There is a gift to a wider community working together. The work we are about truly is an example of the phrase, ‘united we stand, divided we fall.’ ”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.