Changes Coming To Your Church? Don’t Panic!

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. (John F. Kennedy)

This quote from President Kennedy seems appropriate as we think about all the changes taking place in the Diocese of Providence these days. And although change has always been a part of the Church, it’s clear that we’ve now entered a time of more rapid change for parishes, priests, and people.

First, we should emphasize that we’re not talking about changes in the major teachings of the Church. While Pope Francis has called us to a new pastoral approach, a new way of applying the teachings of the Church, (a “paradigm shift,” some have called it), those core teachings are, in fact, unchangeable. But the Pope’s more flexible style has delighted some, disturbed a few, and challenged us all.

But what I’m talking about are changes in local structures, specifically with parishes, schools and priest assignments. And if you’re paying attention at all, you know that rapid change has now become the “new normal” for the Diocese of Providence. These changes are not at all unique to the Diocese of Providence, but are happening across the country, especially in our region.

For example, our friends and neighbors in the Archdioceses of Boston and Hartford, and in the Diocese of Fall River are in the process of implementing significant, pastoral changes. And my home Diocese of Pittsburgh is about to announce the transformation of parish structures that will effectively remake the Catholic Church there after 175 years of history. I’m praying that the “On Mission” process in Pittsburgh goes well.

What’s driving all of these transitions? Well, that’s not a mystery at all. It’s being driven by population change, declining sacramental practice, limited financial resources, and aging priests. And how does all of this affect the Diocese of Providence?

First, a word about schools.

In our diocese there are 40 Catholic schools, 33 elementary and 7 high schools, with varying degrees of relationship to the diocesan Church. They educate about 11,500 students, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. I’m very proud of our schools and deeply grateful to all those who have committed their lives to the Catholic school mission.

Maintaining enrollment remains the primary challenge for our schools. Some are thriving, some are stable, and some are in trouble. The factors that affect enrollment are obvious: the high cost of tuition, competition from other schools, and the declining school age population in our state – especially that. Did you see the “Kids Count” report recently, that in the last 15 years the number of children and youth in Rhode Island has decreased approximately 15 percent? That’s an amazing statistic. It’s quite simple: if you don’t have kids, you don’t need schools.

Second, there are significant changes taking place in our parishes too, also driven by population shifts, Mass attendance, the number of priests and finances.

Some more numbers for you. As I write there are 134 parishes in the Diocese of Providence. That’s more than we need or can sustain. In the last few years we’ve had the canonical affiliation of 15 clusters of two or more parishes. A number of other parishes are sharing a pastor. About 12 churches have closed permanently and have been or will be sold. (That’s another vexing problem – what to do with a closed church.)

In the Diocese of Providence, I’ve opted to take a gradual, patient approach to pastoral planning, looking at parish clusters and regions one at a time, as circumstances demand. But, be assured, parish reorganization will continue, and will accelerate in the days to come.

And finally, what about our priests? We have really good priests, great priests in the Diocese of Providence. They’re faithful and generous in their service, doing their very best to minister to the needs of God’s people. But our priests are aging, and their number is declining. The median age of all of our priests is 68. We have just 21 priests under the age of 40.

And at the moment we’re smack dab in the middle of the priest personnel season, the time when many priests receive new assignments. Four pastors are retiring and that begins a cascade that affects other parishes. This year there will be 12 new pastors, and special ministry assignments too. Sometimes parishioners get upset when their favorite priest moves, but priests move – they always have and always will. It’s the way the Church works.

The point of these reflections is that in the Church, “the times, they are a’changin,” and that reality can be difficult for people to understand and accept. They love their church, their school and their priests. At the same time, though, members of the Church have an important choice to make in how they respond to these necessary changes.

Some people react in a very negative, short-sighted, un-Christian way – getting angry, making accusations, filing complaints, and calling other people names. It’s amazing how change in the Church sometimes transforms “devout” Catholics into apoplectic pagans.

So much better when people understand that structural change, while difficult, will always be part of the Church, and they realize that life goes on; that our faith and commitment to Christ and his Church transcends parish boundaries, church buildings or devotion to their pastor.

So, dear friends, when a school closes, a parish merges, or a pastor is moved, consider what President Kennedy said: “Change is the law of life.” Or even better, remember what Jesus said: “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20)