Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut
Friday, August 18, 2017

Guest Columnist

millennial d.elliot pastoral plan july aug 17When I started working as an associate in the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Pastoral Planning Office, I, like some within the archdiocese, had only an elementary understanding of just what pastoral planning is. Similarly, I was unaware of why it was necessary. The statistics I learned on my first day on the job were eye-opening, to say the least: Between 1965 and 2015, the Archdiocese of Hartford saw a 27 percent decline in the number of Catholics, a 74 percent drop in the number of infant baptisms and a staggering 88 percent decrease in the number of archdiocesan seminarians.

Further actuarial statistics regarding the number of priests who will be retiring are formidable. Assuming that two priests retire before the age of 75, and two priests enter the archdiocese, which seems to be the trend, the classes retiring in the coming years will result in a loss of 67 priests by 2025, with that number climbing to a total of 96 in 2030, and a total of 109 by 2035.

I’m 29. The first three decades of my life have borne witness to a turbulent era for the Catholic Church in Connecticut. I recall that, up until my late teens, at any given church my family would attend, people who arrived fewer than 10 minutes early to a Sunday morning Mass likely would have had to stand in the back. Those same churches are only half full on a good day in 2017. While the factors that have contributed to this decline in attendance must be addressed, we must first confront the harsh realities that lay before us so that we can build a foundation that will enable the Church as a whole to be less reactive to, and more proactive about, change.

After co-hosting eight deanery meetings in front of nearly 1,000 people of the archdiocese, I have been exposed to a gamut of parishioners’ emotions. Some I expected, others I did not. By now, I have heard countless stories from faithful and concerned parishioners regarding their churches. I’ve heard from people whose great-grandparents literally laid the foundation at their beloved church, as well as from folks whose families have a rich sacramental heritage at a particular church. While these legacies should rightly burn bright in our hearts, the health of the entire archdiocese is dependent on a fruitful planning process, which,  unfortunately, can result in the closing of such churches as those. 

It is not overly dramatic to say that only through prayer and planning will the Catholic faith in Connecticut be viable. 

I have also seen the many positive impacts of pastoral planning — firsthand. I had the great pleasure of attending the Palm Sunday celebration at St. Justin–St. Michael in the north end of Hartford. Parishioners celebrated a final Mass at St. Michael and then processed through the streets of their neighborhood to St. Justin’s (roughly a mile and a half away), and had a ceremony to solidify their community. This sense of community was the most striking aspect of this merger. Parishioners from two different churches were able to unite in faith as one community, with a renewed sense of hope and with great plans to keep their new community vibrant.

My suggestion to those age 55 and up in the archdiocese (including my parents, aunts and uncles) is this: Approach pastoral planning in the same way you would approach life insurance or a will. It is natural and prudent for older people to start considering what they will leave to those who come after them. It is also natural for these considerations to focus on tangible goods. Perhaps you have an IRA set up to pay out to your grandchildren, a cookbook filled with recipes that kept your family happy and full for decades or a will that will transfer a house that your father built with his bare hands. All of these heirlooms are practical and meaningful, but have you considered which spiritual goods you will bequeath?

In 2015, a study by the Barna Group ranked Hartford-New Haven ninth among the 10 most “post- Christian” populations in the country on the basis of people’s self-identification, belief and practice. In such an increasingly secular geographic location and era, it is vital to place your trust in the wisdom and the knowledge of the pastoral planning process. Bear in mind that you have received a vibrant and thriving Church from your ancestors. Will future generations of Catholics be able to say the same about you?

David Elliott is an associate in the archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Office

As a priest engaged in parish ministry, I sometimes get a blank look from others when I mention that I have been ordained twice. In fact, that is necessary for any Catholic priest. It is not that something goes wrong the first time around, but, rather, it is a reflection of the Catholic theology of holy orders.

When a man is in priestly formation, a major milestone along the way is his ordination as a transitional deacon; and then approximately a year later that same man is ordained a priest. Every priest you know was also ordained a deacon and served in that ministerial capacity for a period of time during the final stages of preparation for priestly ordination. 

Pope Paul VI officially restored the permanent diaconate following the Second Vatican Council. Since then, thousands of Catholic men in the United States and throughout the world, under the authority of their local bishop, have been formed and trained for ordained ministry as permanent deacons. This certainly can be somewhat confusing — so blank looks are understandable. Perhaps explaining the difference between the two categories of diaconate will help clarify the meaning of ordained ministry as a whole and its dynamic function within the Church.

All deacons are ordained and have the faculty, or permission of their bishop, to preach at Mass, perform baptisms, officiate at weddings and funerals and serve in varied ways within the larger community.

The diaconate is the first rank of holy orders. The others are the presbyterate (priests) and the episcopate (bishops). This structure is hierarchical, so each rank builds upon itself and requires a separate and distinct ordination. Deacons assist priests and bishops to fulfill their ministry.

The main difference between the categories of diaconate is that a transitional deacon is a man on the road to the priesthood, a particular vocation (calling) to serve the Lord and his Church primarily as a minister of the sacraments and a pastor of souls under the direction of one’s (arch)bishop. After an extensive and multifaceted program of seminary formation, he is first ordained to the diaconate. Later, he is ordained to the priesthood, conforming his life to Christ.

A permanent deacon is not planning or preparing to be ordained a priest. The candidate also undergoes a rigorous program of formation, is often older than the typical seminarian and is often married and has children. It is important to note that the wife of a permanent deacon is officially involved in the process of discernment. Single men may be ordained to the permanent diaconate, as long as they commit to celibacy. There are some cases, even here in the Archdiocese of Hartford, in which permanent deacons have felt a call to the priesthood and ultimately have been ordained priests. This happens after the passing of one’s wife and with proper discernment and training, as well as with the approval of the archbishop and consent of others involved in the formation process.

The important common bond uniting all deacons is the profound ministry of service to the body of Christ. The diaconate has a biblical foundation rooted in the work of charity to the poor. Deacons are to be great and active servants of the Gospel and the mission of the Church, both upon the altar and in everyday life and situations. In this way, the diaconate gives witness to a spirit of joyful discipleship for all to admire and emulate.

I know that while I was preparing for ordination to the transitional diaconate during the latter years of my own seminary experience, I felt many internal stirrings of God’s grace. I remember realizing that the diaconate is a turning point at which my approach to formation for the priesthood would shift from an inward focus to an outward one. In other words, it was finally time — after years of classes, exams, assignments, retreats and direction that necessarily and extensively probed my readiness for ordination — to turn my attention squarely to the spiritual well-being of the people of God. It was a beautiful realization and one that enriches my ministry to this day. We all benefit from doing God’s will.

Therefore, when we consider what differentiates specific roles within the Church, we do better to remember exactly who unites us: Our Lord Jesus Christ, now and forever.

Father John L. Lavorgna is pastor of Mary Mother of Church Parish in Waterbury,

gworek column may17(Getty Images)

My mother passed away earlier this year. Since her passing, I haven’t returned to church. My mother was baptized Catholic and made her first Communion, but wasn’t a practicing Catholic after that. I’m confused as to where her soul is now. Can she be at peace?

This situation is difficult. Unfortunately, it’s also a situation that is increasingly common in our Church. As more people choose to stop coming to Mass, we’re left questioning what will happen to them in life and in death.

I’ll begin by saying that, in most cases, we can’t be completely certain about those who have died. This might seem discouraging, but the truth is that it’s not our job to know or to make that decision. It’s God’s. So God is the only one who knows until we join him ourselves.

I think, though, that this truth actually makes our lack of certainty a cause not for discouragement, but for hope — and that is because our God is a God of hope, a God of love, a God of mercy and a God of acceptance. That means that we can hope that God wants his children, even those who have fallen away, in heaven with him.

That is, in fact, what we Catholics believe. Yes, we certainly teach that being part of the Church, receiving the sacraments and going to Mass are the normal ways in which we point ourselves toward God and heaven. And yes, we definitely regard our tradition and teachings as a strong foundation on which people can live out God’s commandments and spread the Gospel. We also believe, however, that knowing how imperfect we people are, God reaches out to people both inside and outside of the Church.

When people fall away from the Church, we do our best to hold onto hope that they’ll eventually return to the Church, or that God will make himself known to them in some other way.
God loves the faith that we have, even when it’s partial and even though it’s not perfect. God never stops loving us and never turns his back on anyone. We know, therefore, that whenever we’re able to turn back toward him, he will be there, waiting, for each of us.

Remember, as Jesus hung on the cross and proclaimed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), and, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43), he chose to fill his final moments providing mercy and a path to eternal happiness to those who had been far less than perfect in their lives. If Jesus offered that mercy and hope to imperfect men and women on that day, we believe that the same mercy and hope will be offered to us.

Our Church has hope for mothers who have stopped practicing their faith, for children who haven’t been to Mass in years, and for every person God has created. We have hope that — somehow, some way — our God who loves us all more than we could ever imagine will break through and turn hearts back to him. We hope that all those who have died might find their way back, in life or in death, and join in the salvation and resurrection our Lord offers.

I pray that these words might bring you some peace about your mother. I pray, as well, that you might find the courage to return to church even in this moment of struggle. The love, support and community of the body of Christ in our churches can be such a critical source of strength in our times of need. Finally, I pray that all those in similar situations might have the faith to stay hopeful even in such difficult moments of their lives.

Father Matthew Gworek is parochial vicar at St. Mary Church in Branford. He is the creator of Catholic Chat with Father Matt, a YouTube video series in which he answers questions about the Church, God and why any odf this should even matter to us all.

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Guest Commentary

I’ve got a theory about the Eucharist. It’s just a theory and it may sound strange at first but it is, I think, entirely orthodox. It is this: If, when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he had only one purpose in mind, namely to give his very self to us as our spiritual nourishment, then he would have used only the bread, because when he took bread and said, “Take and eat. This is my body,” we would understand that this was not just some corpse we were receiving, that this rather was Jesus’ living body that he was giving us, that this was he, Jesus, whom we were receiving; and that would be not only totally satisfying to us but would also perfectly achieve the one and only purpose that Jesus had in mind.