Laity, clergy and administration venture together on Road to Renewal
The Diocese of Buffalo has taken the first steps on the Road to Renewal. Clergy, religious, administrators, as well as the people in the pews are putting their ideas together to reinvigorate the Catholic faith, fully optimize parish and diocesan resources, and increase the impact of our varied ministries throughout Western New York.
Msgr. David G. LiPuma and Maureen Hurley serve as co-chairs of the Renewal Task Force, a 12-member group that is looking at initiatives around the country to serve as models for the Diocese of Buffalo. Through Zoom calls and a survey, parishioners are able to give their opinion on what’s strong in their parish, what ministries are impactful, and how do you leverage that to put parishes together in a holistic way. The initiative is meant to be a parish-driven renewal, rather than a top-down reorganization.
“When you really look at this Road to Renewal, it’s really about renewing purpose, mission and impact of our Catholic faith across Western New York,” said Hurley, who has been looking at statistical data for the project. “We’ve certainly been through some tough times, but interestingly enough when the group went out this past summer to look at other dioceses, many of them were struggling with the same things we were – a large number of sexual abuse claims that needed to be addressed. Several of those dioceses were also in bankruptcy. And the question was, how do you reinvigorate the Catholic faith in our diocese and really optimize the parish resources, the diocesan resources, and impact the ministries that we have.”
Hurley emphasized that this renewal is very much needed and that planning can’t wait.
“We can’t stand still,” she said. “There’s been some concern (that) we’re in the middle of a pandemic, why are we doing this now? And I think it’s even more important as we look at how this pandemic has hurt us, not only as a diocese, but as the faithful, just in terms of being able to be with our community.”
Back in July, the main task force established two sub task forces; one for parishes and one for schools. The parish task force reported to Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Buffalo, and the leadership team of the diocese that they found parish families – groups of up to five parishes collaborating and sharing resources – seemed to have positive results.
“We can no longer use the model that we’ve all been used to for so many years that ‘This is my parish’ and we look inwardly and territorially. No, using the resources that we have available – and that’s human resources as well as financial resources – that the best practice is when parishes work together. Statistics show that the healthy parishes are parishes that truly do collaborate with other parishes,” Msgr. LiPuma explained.
Bishop Scharfenberger has met with the Presbyteral Council and vicars forane several times to update parishes on the renewal. The bishop also met with all priests and deacons via Zoom to inform them of the process. Currently, 18 Zoom meetings are taking place with parishioners in the pews. People are being asked about their strengths, the challenges in their regions, and what could be improved by collaborating with other parishes. Other questions dealt with identifying the vulnerable people who need attention, such as the elderly, youth, disabled and abuse victims.
While some people may see this as a response to Chapter 11 reorganization brought about through clergy abuse, Msgr. LiPuma calls it a perfect storm that has been brewing for the past couple years, beginning with the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the lack of trust in diocesan leadership, and Chapter 11, then compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“You realize that when crises like that happen, you have a choice,” he said. “You can stay paralyzed and not do anything and wait for something to change, or you can be an agent of change and say this is an opportunity for us to show the Catholics and the wider community across Western New York that the Catholic Church is still here, that we’re moving forward, and that we want to be, more than ever, centers of healing, centers of outreach, centers of charity, that people, more than ever, need to have something to hold on to. So many people have lost their way. Maybe they haven’t lost their faith completely, but they’ve been disenfranchised. We need to say we want you. You’re important to us. And we need to show that we can be transparent. We can be a church that wants to serve. That’s why it’s on the parish level, in so many ways, at a time when people really are hurting, it’s time for the Church to step forward and say that’s part of our healing mission.”
Hurley said the pandemic has exposed how greatly our society and our communities are torn apart by poverty, racial injustice, and other social issues.
“If there was ever a time for our Church to step up and say, we’re going to try to heal the wounds that have been totally exposed by this pandemic, now is the time,” she said.
Some might compare this Road to Renewal to the Journey in Faith and Grace that took place under Bishop Edward U. Kmiec beginning in 2o05. During that venture, the diocese was restructured to meet the declining number of priests able to serve the diocese. The Road to Renewal is designed to create families of parishes that will share resources.
“It’s a different model, because (the Journey in Faith and Grace) was not about parishes necessarily working together, it was about restructuring and reducing the number of parishes to meet the number of priests that we had. The reality of the time was that we just did not have enough priests to cover all those parishes. So, it forced, in a sense, the mergers and the closures,” said Msgr. LiPuma.
The Renewal isn’t about getting the number of parishes down to meet the number of priests. It’s about focusing on the strengths of parishes, clergy and laity to do what they do best. A parish with a strong youth program, can open its doors to surrounding youth. Having a layperson serving as business manager or communications director relieves pressure from the pastor.
“We have to look at engaging laity more strongly and working side by side, and allowing priests to do what priests do best – that’s our sacramental service,” Msgr. LiPuma explained. He speaks for himself and other priests when he says that a great deal of his day is taking care of administrative tasks, rather than offering pastoral care. “I love those days when I’m in the basilica and someone comes along and I have the time to sit with them and talk to them about what’s going on in their life, and being present to people, rather than say, ‘I’ve got another meeting.’”
Msgr. LiPuma clarifies that the goal is not to close parishes.
“This is not an initiative to close or merge parishes. This is a renewal initiative. Which means we really need people to change the way they think, the way they feel, their hearts. We have to move forward and we do have limited resources. Will there be structural changes? Maybe down the line. But, it’s not about that. It’s more about the collaboration of people coming together and saying we need to work together with each other, we need to do a better job in faith formation, we need to do a better job in schooling, we need to do a better job in outreach. That can happen when parishes work together in an area, there is a better presence and a clear mission.”
Although there is no ideal model for what a family of parishes will look like, Msgr. LiPuma describes three to five parishes in a family, with a couple of pastors and maybe a couple parochial vicars, even a pastoral administrator. Then have a common business manager, a common parish council, shared faith formation programs. The proximity to parish or regional schools will also be a factor.
“It’s really a way of collaborating together and walking together,” he said.
There is no definite timeline or set mileage for the Road to Renewal. This November the information gathered from the Zoom calls will be presented to Bishop Scharfenberger, who will confer with the vicars forane, Presbyteral Council, diocesan finance council, diocesan pastoral council – which is made up of lay representatives. Then there will be the beginning of a multi-phase implementation.
“We’re never done,” Msgr. LiPuma said. “The Church is constantly changing and moving forward. If we don’t respond to the signs of the times. There’s never a point when we say, ‘We’ve arrived.’ If we really are trusting and believing, we’re moving and changing as needs come forward, we’re saying, ‘We’re a church that’s relevant and ready to change and ready to move forward.’”
“This family of parishes model allows us to be more nimble as the world continues to change around us,” Hurley added. “What I think is, this is the first stage of an ability to say, how can we be more adept as a church to move quickly when things happen and we need to. We want to make sure there is a strong vibrant Church for our kids and our grandkids. We need the next generation of Catholics to come back to a Church that is energized, that’s fluid, that’s able to respond.”
“2021 will probably be a big year,” Msgr. LiPuma said. “Hopefully a better year.”