When 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