The mood this easter in the American church is particularly solemn. The penitential season of Lent and the six-month anniversary of the attack on our country have combined with almost daily revelations of clerical misconduct to create a most somber tone. Despite all the scandal and muckraking, the life of the people of God goes on in faith and charity, but now with an enhanced awareness of our need for the grace and virtue of hope.
Even as newspaper headlines blaze with awful disclosures, religious, priests and pastoral ministers carry out with integrity their very ordinary tasks: parish and convent Masses; religious education; formation activities for those who are completing their sacramental initiation into the church; retreats; the Novena of Grace; prison visits; hospital rounds; preparation of the young for their first Communion. Words of encouragement and compassion soften the expressions of outrage and disbelief. We have been reminded of our sins and sinfulness and our need for the Lord’s mercy and compassion. This year the reminders have been uniquely poignant.
But now, in hope, we have entered into the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. And since that celebration takes place for us in our very human and material world, it is right that we should see signs of hope in that world.
In the avalanche of documentation produced by church officials and offices, there is from time to time, a gem to be found. Such a gem is the pastoral letter delivered by Bishop James Moynihan of Syracuse last year on All Saints Day, Equipping the Saints for the Work of Ministry.
The spirit of the letter is set out in the early passages, in which the bishop assures all the faithful that the church’s goal is to continue to be present in the lives of all the people of the diocese and to leave no one behind. To underscore that assurance, he takes as his point of departure the renewed and strengthened importance of discipleship, which understands that all the people of God have a ministry that is born of baptism. He provided some statistics that leave in no doubt the vibrancy of his diocese. Over 1,300 men and women have been commissioned through the diocesan ministry formation program, and they work in everything from catechetics to health care to business administration. There have been 71 permanent deacons ordained in the last quarter century. Over 5,000 people serve in religious education programs and in Catholic schools. A religious sociologist who examined the document said, Bishop Moynihan has some good technical people working for him, who have succeeded in translating sound data into an intelligible and usable form. The information includes a full analysis of population shifts in central New York State and considers the implications of those shifts for present and future ministry. The decline in the number of priests is not yet dramatic, but it soon will be; and that issue is faced.
Bishop Moynihan even provided a list of frequently asked questions about priest personnel policies, and he answered them with clarity and sensitivity. A priest’s work week should be about 50 hours; in reality it is often far longer. Few things can boost morale as much as the knowledge that your work is recognized and appreciated.
At this early stage of pastoral planning, some proposals were offered, including encouragement for parishes to develop collaborative ministries within a geographical area. Throughout the letter, the bishop asks for broad thinking that includes the good of the whole diocese and all the people for better pastoral care.
The dialogue about pastoral reconfiguration was begun nearly 20 years ago in the Syracuse Diocese, and several principles emerged. Among them was the need to be especially mindful of the next generation of Catholics. Collegiality, subsidiarity and stewardship are to be part of a process that is as inclusive as possible. One stated goal is the creation or maintaining of what the text calls viable parishes. That raises a hard question for all who are involved in pastoral planning. In the last century, could we call a parish viable if no vocations had come forth from that community in 100 years? In this century, are we yet aware that a parish community must provide for its own needs and exercise evangelical outreach to others under the leadership of the bishop?
The plan that Bishop Moynihan has outlined is clearly stated, realistic and filled with hope. That hope is based in reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the proven generosity of his people. He hopes to foster an inclusive community that thinks broadly and serves widely, taking the long view of ministry and including in it all those called to the ministry born of baptism.