This past Monday evening I attended a meeting of our Regional Council, made up of the pastors and two representatives from the Pastoral Councils of each of the twelve parishes in our geographic area. There are two priests who each serve two parishes, with one parish having a Parochial Vicar and one a resident helper. Those twelve parishes are presently served by twelve priests, but forty years ago when I was ordained, there were about twenty-three priests serving that same group of parishes. The purpose of our meeting was to discuss the desire of three of those priests/parishes to adapt their Mass schedules. Back in 2008 we went through a major change in number and times of Masses in response to the October Count needs (we have been "counting heads" at all Masses during the month of October since 2001), seating capacities and clergy limitations.
One of the parishes would like to reinstate on a Sunday a third weekend Mass because of the drop-off of people since the times were changed in 2008. Another has two Saturday eve Masses and two on Sunday between two parishes a short distance from each other, and would like to drop a Saturday eve Mass (despite the fear of losing people). A third has a Sunday eve Mass and would like to regionalize that Mass since presently he has four Masses on the weekend. They presented their cases, a lively discussion followed, and greater issues surfaced.
For those not from the area, we in the Northeast are an older Church, facing changing demographics, often dealing with an abundance of ethnic and Nationality parishes, and definitely spoiled. The complacency of our parish communities and an unwillingness to compromise or adapt is rampant. A number of the laity at the meeting spoke of that fact. As they said, they see the need and the challenge, but the average person in the pew has not listened and will not recognize the need to see things differently than what they were. Rather than the essential importance of gathering for Eucharist, they hold on to the greater desire for convenience. It is a real dilemma that will only be getting worse.
At the meeting, our Dean (the bishop's representative to the area) shared that at a meeting recently they were presented with some staggering statistics. In our Diocese in the next five years, there are twenty-two of our seventy some men in active ministry that will reach the early retirement age of seventy, with most of those indicating an intention to retire. We will, God willing, have three men ordained this Spring, and we recently welcomed three additional priests from the Philippines into our ranks for a term, joining with the two that presently share our ministry. But six from twenty-two still leaves a noticeable shortage. And that shortage will demand sacrifices and change on many levels, for the work of the Faith continues to be our primary concern, and a new vision must arise quickly. What it will be, I have no idea. Thank God that this is His Church, and that he pledged to always be with us. Pray for us ... pray for vision ... pray for vocations.