It should come as no surprise to anyone at this point in the evolution of pastoral planning that change is imminent and necessary. Although change is disconcerting for many, it is imperative that we recognize the state of the Church in the Archdiocese of Hartford and throughout the world, as well, and how vitally important it is to not turn a deaf ear to the challenge Pope Francis articulated in his apostolic exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" (Evangelii Gaudium):
“The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. (27) In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. (28) It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach. We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented ... Each particular (diocese), as a portion of the Catholic Church under the leadership of its bishop, is likewise called to missionary conversion (30) [and] to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform. (33)
One aspect of reform with which we must contend in pastoral planning is the merger process, and a common misconception we often hear has to do with the dynamics of merging. It usually sounds something like, “I heard that Holy Name Parish will be joining us,” or, “Although we know it won’t be easy, we will welcome them with open arms.” The misconception suggested in these statements is the we/they or us/them dichotomy. A merger is not about one lesser, poorer or smaller parish being adopted by a better, richer or larger parish. A merger is more like a wedding. Recall what Jesus taught us about marriage and divorce:
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Mark 10: 7-8)
Based on this metaphor, the Catechism of the Catholic Church goes on to say:
“... the unity of Christ and the Church, head and members of one body, ... implies the distinction of the two within a personal relationship. This aspect is often expressed by the image of bridegroom and bride [whereby], the whole Church [and] each of the faithful, members of his Body, [are] ‘betrothed’ to Christ the Lord so as to become but one spirit with him.” (Canon 796)
A merger, then, is marriage, of sorts, the formation of a new civil and canonical entity. As in a marriage, neither spouse is more important than the other; rather, it’s about recognizing and leveraging the synergies that have manifested for the benefit of the relationship. And just as a married person remains a distinct individual with a unique history, gifts and talents, merging parishes do the same without sacrificing their uniqueness. The two communities, like wives and husbands, learn from one another and together pool their resources to bring new life and new energy to their relationship, growing into their newfound Christ-centered oneness.
This is a prime example of how relevant the Gospels are to our pastoral planning efforts, regardless of their having been written more than 2,000 years ago and in geographic and cultural contexts so very different from ours. The relevance and the impact of Jesus’ words, however, depend on the faith with which they are received and assimilated into our daily lives. Everything we’ve done and continue to do in pastoral planning is tested against Gospel teaching. It is a practical way of assessing whether or not the relationship between the bridegroom Jesus and his bride, the Church, is what the Lord intends, so that it will be a fruitful marriage, rooted in God’s will, not ours.
True worship is not based on a particular location. In reference to pastoral planning, it is less about a building and more about the spirit of the person who worships.
It is incumbent upon us to ask the Lord for the grace of true worship. If we do, we will recognize that the changes we are called upon to embrace are only those that will foster a spirit of harmony, a spirit of Christ-centered oneness. The fruits of our labor may not be evident right away, but if we prune the vine, and fertilize the soil in which the seeds of faith have been planted, with the Lord’s help, an abundant harvest is sure to come.
Deacon Ernest Scrivani is the director of the archdiocesan Office of Pastoral Planning