Some weeks ago, I asked that a letter from me be inserted in all the parish bulletins regarding the announcement of a pastoral planning process for the Archdiocese of Hartford that will unfold over the next three to five years. I also indicated that within the next three months, an online survey will be conducted among the registered households of the archdiocese, together with focus group meetings, interviews and questionnaires. I sincerely hope that as you read this, you will make it your goal to participate in this survey and in the consultation that is envisioned. Your input will be much appreciated.
At this year’s conferral of the archdiocesan St. Joseph Medal of Appreciation on March 22, I took up the theme of pastoral planning in my remarks, and I have been asked to share with our readers some of what I said on that occasion, as follows:
“Today we see this glorious Cathedral of St. Joseph and a host of parishes, schools and other institutions built in the past thanks to a very strong sense of Catholic identity and practice of the faith by those who have gone before us. As a largely immigrant church, the Catholics of Hartford in the 20th century experienced the cross of anti-Catholic prejudice, economic deprivation and the struggle to assimilate. They overcame these challenges without giving up their Catholic faith; indeed, their Catholic faith allowed them to see in their crosses a share in Christ’s own, and his victory over sin and death.
“What do we see now in the 21st century? It is a very different landscape, a whole new world. There’s a saying from an old Jesuit that I’m fond of repeating that perhaps you’ve heard from me before: ‘The truth will set you free, but first it makes you miserable!’ Institutionally, the church in our archdiocese, like so many others in the Northeast and Midwest, is not what it was. Compared to our statistics for the year 1967, the Archdiocese of Hartford in 2013 had:
• 34 percent fewer Catholics;
• 78 percent fewer annual baptisms;
• 84 percent fewer church marriages;
• 76 percent fewer parish elementary school children;
• 82 percent fewer seminarians;
• 68 percent fewer diocesan priests;
• 71 percent fewer religious sisters;
• Average Mass attendance in our archdiocese on a given Sunday in 1969 was 395,000; in 2014 it was 139,000.
“Is that enough misery? It certainly is for me as your archbishop. But remember, if the truth first makes you miserable, it then sets you free.”
As a followup to what I said on March 22, now that we are in the Easter Season the readings at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles tell us how the first Christian community was established. Having received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday, the Apostles began evangelizing boldly and with confidence against all worldly odds, and the church grew. Since then, the church has experienced everything imaginable, and the words of Christ have always proved true: “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
So the challenges we face today are not ultimately about gloom and doom, but about repositioning ourselves for a spiritually rich and vibrant future. It’s precisely here that the challenge and opportunities of pastoral planning come into play. Pope Francis says that we are all called to be “missionary disciples” in the face of all the statistics I have cited; in a society where many people no longer practice their faith and even reject religion and belief in God; where many people today are suffering for lack of a meaning and purpose in life that only Christ can give.
At our baptism and confirmation we received the same gift of the Holy Spirit as the Apostles did at the church’s beginning, so we have no reason to be afraid or discouraged. But we also have to be open-minded and courageous in discerning what best serves the church’s mission. Pope Francis speaks of a “missionary impulse” for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for [the church’s] self-preservation (Evan. gaud., no. 27). “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key,” he writes, “seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’” (ibid., 33).
What I asked of our awardees on March 22, I ask of everyone; namely, your cooperation and collaboration in meeting the challenges of today and in planning for the future. If, as an archdiocesan family of faith, we want to see Jesus in Easter glory, we have to be prepared to see him lifted up on the cross in our day, a spectacle to the world, but a revelation of the power of God to those who believe.