By MaryAnn Kromer, email@example.com
Last weekend, Catholics in the Diocese of Toledo learned the results of a three-year parish reorganization plan that is to begin this July in the diocese. An article in the Jan. 23 edition of the Catholic Chronicle and a press release posted online at www.toledodiocese.org listed the changes and explained the plan evolved from a 2005 study that projected a shortage of at least six priests by 2011 and 12 by 2013.
The number of retiring priests is larger than the number of men entering the priesthood, and that trend is expected to continue. Now, 22 seminarians are in training, but it is unclear how many actually will be ordained.
The first phase of the plan involves four Toledo parishes and 10 others that are to merge, "twin" or share a pastor. Twinning allows the parishes to keep their individual identities, but they have the option of forming a joint pastoral council and sharing ministries and staff. The new plan also specifies assignments of parish managers and pastoral leaders.
In Seneca County, Bascom St. Patrick and Liberty St. Andrew are to merge and be twinned with New Riegel All Saints. St. Patrick and St. Andrew already had been sharing a pastor.
In Sandusky County, Fremont St. Ann is to share a pastor with Fremont St. Joseph. Other neighboring parishes being realigned include Plymouth St. Joseph twinning with Shelby Most Pure Heart of Mary and New Washington St. Bernard twinning with Willard St. Francis Xavier. The pastor serving Willard is expected to put more emphasis on Hispanic ministry.
The Chronicle says factors such as Mass attendance, financial viability, facility size, cultural trends and proximity to other parishes were considered in formulating the plan.
Jason Shanks, director of the Office of Pastoral Planning, said the Pastoral Planning office presented recommendations to the deaneries, 15 regions of the diocese, and accepted input from priests, deacons and lay leaders.
"All the pastors were a part of those deanery meetings. They all had input into the process with suggestions and ideas. From a diocesan-wide standpoint, the majority of the ideas actually came from the deaneries themselves," Shank said.
The Very Rev. Joseph Szybka is leader of the Precious Blood of Jesus Deanery, which covers Seneca County. It includes parishes in Attica, Bascom, Liberty Township, Marywood, New Riegel, Sycamore and Tiffin, as well as Calvert Catholic Schools, Sorrowful Mother Shrine, St. Francis in Tiffin and Mercy Tiffin Hospital.
Szybka said the reorganization plan was discussed during two regular deanery meetings last fall. Although he described having a deacon available to assist him as "a great blessing," the availability of deacons was not a major factor in the consolidation planning. Each pastor can staff the parish in any way that suits its specific needs.
Shanks said the diocese is trying to regroup parishes in such a way that Catholics will continue to have access to Mass and the sacraments and priests will not be given more duties than they can manage. Bishop Leonard Blair met one-on-one with the pastors of all the realigned parishes in 2011 before the plan was made public. Over the next two years, 20 more parishes are to see changes. Shank said parishes affected this year will not need to make more adjustments in 2012 or 2013.
In the Toledo Diocese, priests are required to retire after 40 years of service or at age 75. The bishop can make exceptions and allow a retired priest to continue working, if the priest is willing and able. Otherwise, he is given "senior status." At Tiffin St. Joseph, Szybka has three retired priests who assist him, the Revs. James Steinle and Dennis Schroeder and Msgr. Edward Dunn.
"Many of them, while not being a pastor, will still be involved either at a parish, saying Masses while other priests are on vacations, or helping out as chaplains at hospitals and other things. They're still very active and involved, but they may not have the day-to-day duties," Shank said.
Now that the reorganization has been finalized, a list of openings is to be given to all the priests of the diocese. They can request to move or be assigned to a particular place, but the bishop makes the final decisions. Shank expects some of those assignments to be announced during the Easter season. The new plan goes into effect July 1.
Generally, priests are assigned to a six-year term at one location, but they can request a transfer before that time. The bishop also can move a priest if the need arises. The press release on www.toledodiocese.org quotes Blair as saying "the determination of 'what and when' depend chiefly on the number of priests retiring and the number of priests ordained-as well as unanticipated illnesses and the unanticipated arrival of priests."
Parishes with a pastor and no associate or deacon to help are depending more and more on the laity to get involved in parish ministries. Sometimes Catholics may have the simplistic idea that the main job of the pastor and associate pastor is to celebrate weekend liturgies.
In reality, they also must perform baptisms, weddings, last rites and funerals and take care of all the related records and documents. Hearing confessions, visiting prisons and hospitals, counseling couples, teaching classes and conducting Bible studies are other duties priests might have.
"There's also the administrative tasks that they would be responsible for ... financial oversight, development, buildings and grounds, catechetical programs, schools, youth groups. They're going to be responsible for outreach, working with the poor, house calls to the sick and the elderly," Shanks said. "Most people have a general sense (of what priests do), but if you're just showing up at Mass on Sunday, you might not realize all the planning that goes into running that parish - or in some cases now, more than one parish."
Many parishes already have lay volunteers who help with various ministries. Szybka said parishioners help him by taking communion to shut-ins and visiting the hospital.
"What I would be able to do infrequently, they are able to do weekly. ... So I think that openness, or when there are particular needs, and most parishes will put that in the bulletin - if people are open and responsive to that, that's a great blessing to a priest," Szybka said.
Shanks suggested taking the pastor out to dinner or inviting him to dine at the family home to show caring and support.
"First and foremost, we want to make sure we are praying for them. Also ... maybe (parishioners) should ask their pastors, 'What can I do for you, Father? What area do you need help in?' Ultimately, getting involved in the ministries of the parishes, as youth leaders, catechetical leaders, helping with little things like the parish festival, stuffing bulletins, ushering. All those things contribute to the life of the parish and help the pastor," Shanks said. "We always have this thought that someone else is doing it, but the reality is, you only have about 10 percent of the people doing all the work of the parish. The more the lay people can do, the better for the pastor."