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Parish Life

Deacons hope to lead parish on the way of faith


Four local deacons banded together to guide their parishes, and the rest of the diocese, as we pass through rough waters. Using the notion that strong parishes make a strong diocese, they planned an initiative designed to make the parish stronger, holier and a more important part of every parishioner’s life in real and tangible ways. They call this initiative Via Fidei – the Way of Faith.

In 2020, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, then apostolic administrator of the Buffalo Diocese, approached Deacon Timothy Chriswell looking for a way to heal abuse victims within the diocese in the wake of the clergy abuse crisis. Deacon Chriswell suggested bringing in Deacon Gregory Moran, who worked with Samaritan Counseling Center.  In his discussion with Bishop Scharfenberger, Deacon Moran expanded the discussion by identifying four distinct groups that desperately needed healing– the direct victims of abuse, the priests who were not involved in the scandal, the people who left the Church because of the scandal, and the people who stayed behind despite the scandal. All of which have had their church turned inside out.

“What we really needed was to address all four of those as pillars of healing, addressing one isn’t going to be sufficient,” Deacon Moran said. “The thought was, which I told (Bishop Scharfenberger), ‘I think we need to start with healing parishes, so that there is something that is safe and attractive for people to come back to.  If parishes aren’t healthy, what are we inviting people back to?”

“The people who left, we couldn’t encourage them to come back to a place that was the same place that they left,” said Deacon John Gaulin, who, along with Deacon Gary Andelora, round out the core team.

They chose two pilot parishes – Our Lady of Pompeii in Lancaster and Nativity of Our Lord in Orchard Park and set a goal of reinvigorating parishes as a center of faith that are truly missionary from the ground up, based on the needs of the parishioners, not the decrees of diocesan officials.

“It wasn’t meant to be something that was diocesan down, but something that would come from the people in the pews, involve them and get their perspectives,” said Deacon Gaulin.

Through focus groups and parish surveys, they asked three basic questions – “What do you love about your parish?”  “What do you feel is not being done well at their parish?” and “What things should they be doing but aren’t?”

“The focus is healing, but healing from the perspective of regaining the essence of who we are as Catholics and putting that into the context of specific parishes,” Deacon Gaulin said.

Via Fidei’s model is broken down into major three steps. A Discovery phase involved answering those questions. Then an infrastructure of action-oriented committees was created. Finally, they would identify and resolve specific areas that needed improvement.

“Essentially, what to change to and how to cause the change,” Deacon Gaulin summed up.

During the pilot programs, a lot of power is being put into the hands of the parishioners, allowing them to determine what needs to change in their parishes. Our Lady of Pompeii focused on creating an adoration chapel. “The idea was, if we’re not Christ-centered then everything else we’re going to do basically will fail. We wanted to return to our roots,” Deacon Gaulin said.

Small teams designed and constructed the chapel. A ministry team will set up guidelines for its use. Those who want to help but can’t get too involved contribute as prayer warriors.

Nativity is trying to tackle seven key areas at once. For each area, a chairperson oversees a small group that works on a particular area. One moderator brings updates back to steering committee. 

“What they do is, they come up with an idea, they bring it to Father (James Ciupek, pastor). If Father approves it, the steering committee helps them roll out the proposal. If Father has a problem with it, it comes back to the steering committee and we help the workgroup resubmit it to address Father’s concerns and go forward,” Deacon Andelora explained.

During the parish surveys, the senior population mentioned wanting bus trips and speakers. 

“The greatest thing about that is, through their survey, they had four people say, ‘I didn’t know there was a senior service workgroup. I’d like to be part of it.’ So, they picked up members from their survey, which was a real nice outcome we weren’t expecting,” he said.

Even through the worst of the pandemic, Via Fidei worked to expand its effort. This past January, Kathy Moriarty, a parishioner at St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrow parish joined the core group of four deacons in Via Fidei. In addition, seven more deacons and another parish member volunteered to be trained as facilitators and have begun working in parishes looking to improve. 

Currently, the entire Via Fidei team is also assisting Father Bryan Zielinieski with the Road to Renewal while it continues its parish-level work.

Anyone interested in joining this ministry may contact Renewal@BuffaloDiocese.org.