We are part of the body of Christ

Friday, February 23, 2018 - Updated: 2:15 pm

By Father Samuel J. Esposito

This is the latest in a series of columns about On Mission for The Church Alive!

Remember the story of Chicken Little? “The sky is falling!”

As we get closer to April 26 and the announcement of Bishop David Zubik’s decisions about the parish groupings and clergy assignments, tension is in the air. It is natural for people who love their parishes to be disturbed about changes to the pattern of parish life. If I have been a regular at the 9:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Anastasia, and in the coming months it is decided that there will no longer be a 9:30 Sunday Mass in that church, my world has shifted.

But truly, the sky is not falling. While adjustments to where or what time we worship on Sundays can be considered a sacrifice, no one will have to travel great distances (50 miles or more) as Catholics do in places such as the rural southern United States and vast swaths of Latin America and Africa. Mass will be available in multiple places and at multiple times in every grouping.

During nearly two years of consultation, Bishop Zubik has continued to listen to feedback. From my perch, I can see that people don’t always understand what that means. Some believe that, if the bishop makes a decision different from what they prefer, then he hasn’t listened to them. They react with an attitude of, “I knew this was a done deal from the start.” But such an attitude assumes that only our own desires and convenience are important.

We must remember two critical points. First, Bishop Zubik has to take in the big picture and consider every corner of the six counties under his care. A decision in one corner of the diocese affects all the other parishes. If a priest is here, he can’t be there. And that’s the other point. We are related one to another whether or not we like it, believe it or accept it. All of us form the body of Christ.

The groupings were considered by the On Mission Commission, which made its recommendations to the bishop last September. Even after that, consultation continued among the bishop’s staff members, and then by the Priest Council.

The Priest Council, which represents our priests in every age bracket, is the chief advisory council for the bishop. Its members reviewed the recommendations from the On Mission Commission in order to determine, from a pastoral perspective, if these groupings were the right ones. In 17 cases, the priests on the council raised other possibilities. Next, those possibilities were tested with more than 60 priests who are currently in the parishes that would be part of those groupings. The responses and suggestions of the priests were given to the bishop.

In addition, the Diocesan Pastoral Council was consulted and reviewed the recommendation between November 2017 and early January 2018. This 24-member body — with 21 lay members from parishes throughout the diocese, a diocesan priest, a religious-order priest and a sister — also gave feedback on the groupings recommended by the On Mission Commission.

While all of this review has been underway, Bishop Zubik has not made decisions. He needs to prayerfully consider all that he has heard from the Priest Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council.

With all that has been presented to him from Sept. 7 until now, Bishop Zubik is preparing to announce his decisions about the parish groupings and the clergy who will be assigned to each of them. As one who has been intimately involved since the work of the Preparatory Commission began in 2013, I can testify that every consideration has been given to the substantial proposals and ideas that have surfaced from parishioners and clergy alike.

If you attended one of the 329 parish consultation sessions in fall 2016, you may remember that the draft models for new parishes were presented with a disclaimer: “There is no perfect model.” You were asked for your opinion, your opinion has been considered and many models have changed substantially. When the bishop finally chooses a configuration, it will be the one he considers the best among several possibilities.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as we move forward:

First, we can’t remain as we are. Paralysis won’t help us grow the faith because it won’t free up the resources that every parish requires in order to focus on ministry and outreach.

Second, pruning has to occur before growth. Each of us will be asked to sacrifice something. Sacrifice is central to the Christian message of dying and rising that we celebrate at each Mass. It is at the heart of who we are as Christians.

Third, we Catholics have been spreading the Gospel for 2,000 years. Catholics in every era have responded to the challenges of that era. That is what we are attempting to do in our own era: spread the Gospel effectively.

Keep looking up. Pray that the Holy Spirit continues to fire up our hearts so that we can accomplish what God desires and strengthen the faith. The sky isn’t falling.

Father Esposito is episcopal vicar for On Mission for The Church Alive! For more about On Mission, go to onmissionchurchalive.org. 

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