HARTFORD – Almost 20,000 parishioners from across the Archdiocese of Hartford completed a survey or participated in a focus group to provide their personal perspectives to revitalize the church. Two sets of linked parishes prepared to merge in the New Year to share and leverage resources. A task force of clergy and laity convened to develop an institutional guide for parish modifications. A large group of parish leaders volunteered to form a pastoral council to serve as a working advisory committee to Archbishop Leonard P. Blair.
What do these seemingly separate actions have in common? All have pastoral planning central to their mission.
As Archbishop Blair has repeatedly explained, the teams behind these efforts are committed to opening a new chapter of evangelization, one that envisions the parishes of the archdiocese as vibrant communities of faith that are characterized by spiritual vitality, organizational efficacy and accountability, and social and financial responsibility; and comprising people committed to bringing the joy of the Gospel to others, in particular to the most poor and destitute. This vision is inspired by the call of Pope Francis for “a missionary option, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (Evangelli Gaudium - 27).
In establishing the Office of Pastoral Planning back in July of 2014, Archbishop Blair highlighted two key points. He said, first, that "pastoral planning is meant to be consultative and collaborative at every level, especially at the local [parish] level. And second, it is not just about personnel, finances and buildings, although all three will undoubtedly be affected by the outcome. The primary goal is to carry out the church’s spiritual mission in the most vital and effective way.”
Led by Father James A. Shanley, vicar for pastoral planning, episcopal vicar of Hartford and rector of the Cathedral of St. Joseph, the Office of Pastoral Planning serves as a consulting body to the Office of the Archbishop as well as to all of the people who collectively encompass the archdiocese.
Geographically, the archdiocese is composed of three vicariates, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury, which encompass 17 deaneries and 213 parishes.
Since its inception, the office has made numerous strides, including creating an initial draft of a pastoral plan that includes statements of mission and vision, guiding principles and a set of five strategic priorities.
The draft plan was shared with the priests of the archdiocese at their annual convocation in November and, most recently, with the pastoral council. Once finalized, the plan will be disseminated throughout the archdiocese and become the basis of local strategic planning – for parishes, schools, offices and agencies of the archdiocese.
Meanwhile, parish schools, in collaboration with the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools, are making improvements. The moves respond to changing demographics and challenging financial trends seen elsewhere in Connecticut’s public and private schools while remaining steadfast to a tradition of high academic standards and spiritual richness.
For example, St. Peter/St. Francis School in Torrington implemented a transition from a traditional elementary school model to one that has multi-age classrooms.
The first early childhood center of the archdiocese has opened at Assumption School in Manchester, serving children ages 3 through 6 in year-round preschool, prekindergarten and kindergarten programs. The academic and child-care services offered there are structured to support working families.
Another example has taken place in Bristol where, as a result of a highly consultative process begun in the summer, there will soon be a new Catholic elementary school model that merges the three current schools into two.
For the 2016-17 academic year, St. Matthew and St. Joseph Schools will offer prekindergarten through eighth grade classes while sharing one school board. They also will have identical tuition and fees, and will share curriculum and programming resources.
As part of the ongoing efforts, two sets of linked parishes are in the process of merging. Led by Father Robert Turner of St. Augustine Parish in North Branford and St. Monica in Northford, and Father Timothy O’Brien of Immaculate Heart of Mary in Harwinton and Immaculate Conception in New Hartford, groups of about 40 representatives from each parish participate in a series of training programs designed to create pastoral plans for the soon-to-be merged parishes. Fathers Turner and O’Brien will also work collaboratively to develop a set of guidelines for the benefit of those pastors who will be engaged in similar exercises in the near future.
Additionally, a task force is documenting all of the canonical and civil laws pertaining to parish modifications, as well as the procedures related to these laws. The intent is to make future parish modifications and navigation of the laws and procedures inherent to the process as simple, seamless and expeditious as possible.
As a result of responses to the archdiocesan survey, focus groups and the numerous interviews and conversations that have taken place since the inception of the Office of Pastoral Planning, communication will continue to play an important role. People said they wanted more interaction with Archbishop Blair as well as more and frequent information from the archdiocese.
As a result, the archbishop has since written a pastoral letter and two informational letters that were distributed to people of the archdiocese by way of church bulletin inserts. In direct response to survey participants, the archbishop is using new communications tools to connect with diverse groups. For example, he kept a daily travelogue of his insights, perspectives and inspirations as he participated in the papal visit. The travelogue was shared in written and audio form through the archdiocesan and Catholic Transcript websites and highlighted in various secular radio and print outlets. Daily submissions of the travelogue also were read to listeners of CRIS, the Connecticut Radio Information System Inc., a radio reading service that serves blind and print-challenged people.
In order to ensure a steady stream of information from the archbishop’s office and from the chancery, Karin A. Nobile, who specializes in business strategy, social responsibility planning and strategic communications, joined the pastoral planning team last April as the department’s community engagement strategist and special assistant to the archbishop.
Going forward, it is likely that the office’s current study of historical and projected demographics, finances, church seating capacities and sacramental activity will be concluded in January, 2016.
Subsequently, a review of the findings and recommendations for restructuring will be presented to Archbishop Blair and key archdiocesan leaders in early February. At that point, a final restructuring plan will be honed, followed by collaborative planning among vicars, deans, pastors and parish leaders throughout the archdiocese for its implementation.
Information about the pastoral planning efforts is available by clicking on the Office of Pastoral Planning link on the Archdiocesan website at http://archdioceseofhartford.org.
Deacon Scrivani is director of the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Office of Pastoral Planning.