Column | Things Are Not What They Used to Be

Bishop Bonnar


Bishop of Youngstown

They can be found in virtually every neighborhood. In some cases, they become the very thing that defines the neighborhood. Sometimes it is a place where people meet. Sometimes it is a piece of nature that serves as a fountain of life and peace – like a moving stream or a towering tree. In the neighborhood in which I lived the sacred place was a convent and high school for girls owned and operated by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God.

This beautiful campus nestled on a hill in the South Hills of Pittsburgh is something that became more than just a landmark or collection of buildings. In a very real sense, it became part of many family trees. Both of my sisters were educated at St. Francis Academy, which closed many years ago. Remnants remained some time thereafter with the development of a pre-school in the same high school building. My four siblings and I were educated by these Sisters of St. Francis at our local parish school. I remember serving Holy Mass in the convent chapel during Holy Week and special feasts. Needless to say, for many years this campus was a sign of life which rippled through the neighborhood and beyond.

Things however are not what they used to be. Life inevitably means change. People move. Populations shift. Demographics fluctuate. Homes become vacant. Institutions go in different directions. Not even the Church is exempt from change as parishes merge, and/or close, priests are transferred and religious communities with diminishing numbers downsize.

A few years ago, I was blessed to attend the final Mass in the convent chapel. What had been for them a holy and sacred space would eventually be leveled to build condominiums. On that day, I was particularly struck by the faith of the Sisters. They knew life would be different, but they embraced it with trust. I should not have been surprised because their vocation and ministry has never been about buildings but a charism. In addition, their community’s name says it all. These are Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God. They believed in God’s providence, which means they knew that God is always steps ahead – leading according to His plan. It reminds me of the quote from the Book of Proverbs: “In his mind a man plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9) We need always to walk, not according to our steps, but to the Lord’s – which often means change.

Our local Church, the Diocese of Youngstown, finds herself in a time of change. Things are not what they used to be. My late predecessor, Bishop George Murry, knew this so well when a few years ago he established a Regional Plan for parishes and providing for the needs of the faithful. While the plan essentially came to a grinding halt because of his death and the pandemic, we have been working hard to put the plan back into motion. As we have fewer and fewer priests for ministry, time is of the essence. We cannot stand still.

In 2000, the diocese had 117 active priests and 63 retired priests. In 2011, the numbers were 95 active and 49 retired. Today, we have 63 active and 44 retired priests, and 32 of the active priests have two or more parishes.

Over the last few months, we have begun moving forward with the regional plan. For example, we began addressing the Alliance, Maximo and Sebring area by assigning one priest with two pastoral associates. The task of this ministerial team is to maximize resources and bring these four communities together because things are not what they used to be.

In addition, as we made personnel moves at St. Barbara, Massillon, and Saint Joan of Arc, Canton, the newly appointed priests were given a mandate to begin collaborating with the neighboring pastors – all of whom are beyond retirement age – so as to prepare accordingly for the future. Again, things are not what they used to be. No longer can parishes live in their own little world. Parishes and pastors need to collaborate together for the good of the Church. This means sharing staff and programs. When we work together, we are stronger.

More recently, I accepted the petition for there to be only one church in Campbell for Christ the Good Shepherd Parish. I will be presiding at the last Masses for both of the churches being closed in November. Given the large debt and lack of resources, the parish cannot afford three buildings. In full disclosure, they cannot even afford the salary and benefits of a priest and staff. Nevertheless, as bishop I feel it is important that we provide a priest to administer the Sacraments and be a spiritual father to this storied community.

Just last week I wrote to our priests and told them that we would begin enforcing one of the major tenets of the regional plan as set forth by Bishop Murry. The plan states that on Sundays and Holy Days there can only be three Masses for each priest. While many of our parishes have complied with this directive, there still are some that are exceeding what they can do by having retired priests celebrate the extra Masses. I am forever indebted to our retired priests. However, we cannot build a plan around them. We must live in reality, because things are not what they used to be. It is imperative that we be fair and just across the board.

At the same time, I realize that in some rare cases there may be a compelling pastoral reason to have an extra Mass. I have invited pastors who wish to state their case in this regard to put it in writing and forward it to the diocese. Their request will be heard by the Clergy Personnel Board, who will make a recommendation to me as to a course of action. It is my hope to have this matter resolved so that new Mass schedules can begin effectively on the First Sunday of Advent.

As I pray about this more and more, I want to share three concerns for your consideration. First, I worry about our priests, who are working harder than ever before, traveling from place to place and administering multiple parishes and so much more. While they represent a divine reality, let us not forget that they are human and can only do so much. We need priests who are healthy and put into positions to do their best. And we cannot expect of our priests what we expected 50 years ago because things are not what they used to be – not to mention there are so few of them. Please pray for our priests.

Second, I worry about how myopic and inflexible we can become as human beings about our faith. Sometimes we can reduce what is meant to be a personal relationship with Jesus to a building or space. The apostles had to leave the Upper Room. We cannot become so attached to our buildings that we fail to go forth and joyfully proclaim the Gospel. Our faith can never be reduced to a building, for our faith is meant to be lived and shared with others. Remember, Jesus says: “Wherever two or three gather in my name, there am I.” (Matthew 18:20) Note that there is no mention about a building. Jesus remains with us. Let us rejoice in this knowledge.

Finally, I worry that our nostalgia for the past can impede us from living in the moment and being excited about the future. The front windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror. I realize that many of us continue to be driven by “the good old days.” Those days, no matter how good they seemed, are over. Things cannot remain the same, but God has not abandoned us. Better days are ahead, but somehow those days will be different from before. Let us not fear the future, which no doubt will mean even more change.

Let us dream together with the Holy Father, who, in “The Joy of the Gospel” writes: “I dream of 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.” Please, let us work together and make this dream come true because our faith is not about maintaining the status quo with buildings, but being missionary disciples who announce the Good News always in relationship with the person of Jesus.

Indeed, things are not what they used to be. When we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and behold His presence daily, things and life can be so much better.

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