by Jay Akasie
This is the fourth article in a special series on the reconfiguration process in the Diocese.
Members of the commission charged by the Christ Jesus, Our Hope diocesan planning process are conducting their second round of parish visitations this week, taking the commission’s initial recommendations back to the parishes that will be affected as part of the strategic plan.
For faithful parishioners across Brooklyn and Queens who might be hearing from the commission this week, its members might seem like faceless bureaucrats from diocesan headquarters who don’t understand the issues facing their communities.
But nothing could be further from the truth. The diocesan planning commission is made up of faithful parishioners as well. They know the needs and concerns of parishes that are part of the strategic planning process, according to Robert Choiniere, the director of pastoral planning for the diocese.
“Although it’s sometimes painful, change is important to the life of the Church. Commission members are very much a part of the diocese and are sensitive to how the change is implemented,” he said.
Choiniere spoke to a gathering at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston last month to prepare parish representatives for the commission’s visitations. Part of his job, he said, is to make sure parishes know that the diocesan administration is a partner with them in this process.
Indeed, during that same meeting, Bishop Frank Caggiano, Vicar General, told the assembled parish representatives that everyone involved with Christ Jesus, Our Hope knows full well how anxious parishioners might be as the initiative gets underway and that they are there as partners in that process.
“It would be an understatement to say that the Church is changing,” Bishop Caggiano said. “Some congregations face financial concerns, and the majority of Catholics aren’t worshipping on Sunday mornings. These are daunting challenges. Our survival is predicated on growth and on vitality. We need to gear ourselves to evangelization. This in itself is an act of evangelization.”
The diocesan administrators in charge of Christ Jesus, Our Hope have structured the process with the knowledge that previously merged parishes were telling them that there are still issues that have to be addressed. The commission came up with a series of questions that ask the parishes to tell the diocese about themselves.
To be sure, the process is focused on temporalities. “We need to focus on buildings and properties so we can minister most effectively to congregations. In some cases, we’ll be merging contiguous parishes. The bishop is reticent to close churches. But we’re saving costs. It’s not easy. It takes five years before people feel comfortable with it,” says Choiniere.
Basic questions that administrators are asking when they visit parishes are how many Masses there are and what is the average Sunday attendance. Choiniere also says that the process looks to consolidate programs when it’s viable to do so. For example, does a newly-merged parish have to have two RCIA programs when it can probably support just one?
In cases where two parishes will have one administration, those parishes are creating a whole new identity, according to Choiniere. So the commission is sensitive to the fact that identifying potential merger partners that will mesh well is extremely important. In the past, when parishes were pulled together at the last minute, it didn’t go over well, he said.
Of course, trying to coordinate schedules of 30 parishes and their teams with the commission charged with the diocesan reorganization process is a big job. Yet commission members are volunteers – they are doing what they do because of their faith and their commitment to the diocese.
“This is a process of consultation. We don’t have the luxury of time. But we need to have a solid ecclesiology about it. People can deal with reality when you let them know about the situation as early and often as possible,” Choiniere said.
Even still, anxious parishioners might still be asking themselves where this is all going and if the re-organization only has to do with finances. True, if a parish is struggling to meet basic financial commitments – heating bills, water bills – they really can’t do much else. So the diocese wants to have parishes that can meet their responsibilities and then go on to taking care of people and evangelization.
But before that can happen, parishes must be stable to function properly.
“The whole issue is that we want to have strong parishes to carry out the new evangelization,” says Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
The bishop says the diocese is trying to do a minimal closure of worship sites. But in time, he says, there might have to be combined administrations of two churches that end up forming one parish. Plus, he said, sometimes the physical plant is not worth fixing, like an old, wooden-framed church that was leaning to one side that the diocese determined was too expensive to repair.
Bishop DiMarzio points to the fact that the geography of the Diocese of Brooklyn actually makes parish closures less painful for those involved. The diocese has 225 churches in just 180 square miles. “So people can go to other churches. Closing one doesn’t mean having to travel 50 or 60 miles to another parish. We have to be realistic. We will take care of people and every area will have a church accessible to them,” he says.
Bishop DiMarzio says that merging or closing parishes depends on more than just one factor. He has charged members of the commission to look at the condition of buildings involved and not automatically to favor the more affluent parish in deciding which of two parishes might close. Other factors include issues like whether one parish has a school and one doesn’t.
“Every situation is taken into account separately,” Bishop DiMarzio says. “We are keeping most of the worship sites open. But people have to realize that the smallest unit takes care of what it can handle. If not, it should not depend on the diocese for support. People sometimes are lulled into thinking of the diocese as a big brother.”
Bishop DiMarzio says everyone should be receptive to hearing the commission’s upcoming recommendations because he has asked the members to come up with a viable plan. “We’re not trying to dictate centrally. You should decide what’s best for you. If you can’t do it yourself, we can intervene,” he says.
The diocese is planning on the entire diocesan strategic planning process to take another two years to complete. So no matter what, every parish will have been reviewed both financially and pastorally. “Sometimes a parish is doing two or three baptisms a year, so what purpose is that parish serving? These are questions we look at and they’re questions that involve more than just money,” he says.
The bishop is also clear about communicating to the entire diocese that the re-organization is not being done because of a personnel shortage. The diocese is stable now and for the foreseeable future, with more than enough seminarians coming through the pipeline.
The motivation on the part of the diocese is pastoral viability, says Bishop DiMarzio. “This is much more of a systematic way of doing things than it was in the past. We used to close the parish only when it was dead. Now we’re trying to be ahead of the wave,” he says.
With pastoral viability comes the new evangelization and the energy to carry that out, he says. It means reaching people who are not coming to church.
“If you’re in a weak position, you can’t do that. Pastors feel overwhelmed. Sometimes it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This is a progression of positive steps making things stronger and better,” says the bishop.
Bishop DiMarzio is also quick to remind Catholics across the diocese that the first day he arrived in the Diocese of Brooklyn, he pledged to lead a diocese that is about mission, not just maintenance.
“We see a goal. Almost half the people in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens are not Christian – we have a mission to positively influence everyone. We want to be clear about what we stand for and reach out to others,” he says.