Thursday, May 6, 2010

Building a Holy Communion in the local Catholic Church

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Unity, collaboration are essential as local church faces significant changes


For Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, whether in the cities, towns or rural areas, the life of faith as it has come to be known is getting closer to a time of change.


When the work of the Strategic Task Force for Parish and School Planning begins to be put into place, the goal is to have a more vital and dynamic local church. But the announcement and implementation aren’t likely to happen without grieving.

In the coming months, the recommendations of the task force will go to Archbishop John Nienstedt for inspection and eventually his approval, and the report is expected to be presented this fall.

Even then, the process will be far from over. So far, the work of the task force has included data gathering, meetings with parish leadership and listening sessions across the archdiocese, where parishioners could express their needs, concerns and hopes.

The process has been 14 months in the works to date, and the writing of the report will go on throughout the summer before the anticipated early October announcement of the plan.

The restructuring and reorganization will be a lengthy process, Archbishop Nienstedt told an archdiocesan Ministry Day audience, and one that won’t be without challenges and difficulties.

Mitigating the pain

The archbishop called upon the more than 300 lay ministry professionals gathered to be part of, and to help build, a “holy communion,” one in which individuals understand and believe in the mission of the church.

It’s that kind of unity and collaboration that will lead to better serving the mission and, in the archbishop’s experience, can temper the potential for hurt and anger that so often accompanies change.

“Change is hard for all of us,” Archbishop Nienstedt said April 29 at Ministry Day, an annual gathering of those who serve at parishes and archdiocesan offices, held this year at St. Patrick in Inver Grove Heights.

He made reference to the closing of parishes and schools in his native Archdiocese of Detroit. The changes the church made there brought “anger, rancor, dissent and disaffiliation,” and the mission of the church “was lost in a cloud of negativity,” the archbishop said.

“Our own vision of being church must be rooted in the ‘communion’ of life, love and truth. . . . More than likely, the proposed recommendations will require new ways of thinking on the part of pastors and parishioners alike. They will require that weekly routines be altered and, yes, even lives be adjusted. The man who has been going to the same church for the 10 o’clock Mass for 20 years is going to find that Mass at the next parish.”

For understanding and acceptance to occur in such cases, being in communion is key, the archbishop said. “Communion draws us out of ourselves and into Jesus.”

Archbishop Nienstedt said he prays daily that the archdiocese, wider church and world might come to know the unity that comes from letting go of personal wishes and wants and from having the humility to listen to and value the opinions of others.

In his message to the lay ministers, the archbishop said his intention was “to help us think about the dynamics of communion.”

Dissecting the Gospel story of the Woman at the Well (John 4:5-26, 28-29), he pointed out that the woman Jesus asked to give him a drink of water came to believe in him after realizing that the life she had been leading didn’t result in happiness.

“Her search for love will always be futile,” the archbishop said, “when it turns to self-seeking human pleasure.”

“(Jesus) thirsts for our souls. . . . Only when we allow our hearts to be captured by his love do we find true joy and fulfillment.”

Giving up personal desires and entering into communion with others draws one into the mission Jesus gave his disciples, to go teach all nations, he added. “The laity are called to sanctify the world in the name of the church.”

Keeping that mission in mind will be important as the changes come that will impact every parish in the 12-county archdiocese in one way or another.

Asked by The Catholic Spirit if he was aware of any dioceses in which a parish and school reorganization did not result in the scene he spoke of in Detroit, the archbishop first said no, but then he mentioned that the reorganization he was involved in in his previous episcopal assignment in the Diocese of New Ulm was a model that, although not perfect, was successful.

“In New Ulm we had a process we worked and worked and worked,” he said. Very key was a planning committee that was willing to take a draft of its ideas to the pastoral leadership, talk about it, revise it, take it back, talk some more and revise some more.

In the end, the pastoral leadership took ownership of the plan, he said.

“Life in New Ulm is not perfect,” Archbishop Nienstedt said, noting that after all that conversation and discussion there were still complaints and angry people. “But despite the challenges and difficulties, the pastoral leadership knew it was the right thing to do.”

Much to look forward to

The lesson he took from his New Ulm experience was the importance of listening, dialogue, giving people an opportunity to express their opinions and repeating the overall mission.

“The purpose is to have a more vital and dynamic local church,” Archbishop Nienstedt said.

“This is not going to be a one-time thing,” he stressed. “It’s going to be ongoing, and it won’t be done in my time as archbishop. I think we’re on the right track.”

There will undoubtedly be a sense of loss for some, and the archbishop doesn’t doubt that changes will elicit anger.

“Change is difficult for everyone,” he said. “For people to make these accommodations will be hard. But we have a much better chance if they see the big picture.”

At Mass, Bishop Lee Piché said the like-mindedness the archbishop spoke of should build a bond of unity among Catholics.

“Can this unity really exist in the church?” the auxiliary bishop asked. “If so, it must begin with those who minister in the church.”

Father Steven Adrian, pastor of St. Matthew in St. Paul, added advice that fit with the theme for the day — “Serving in the Spirit” — which was planned by the Coalition of Ministry Associations in the archdiocese.

Among the “attitudes” he recommended for lay ministers was, “Don’t be surprised by diversity, don’t pre-judge speakers and don’t be frightened by what is different. Instead, take an attitude of non-judgmental listening.”

Father Adrian warned, “We can become so invested in what we know, what we want, [and] what we’re used to that we don’t want to hear anything else.”

Bob Zyskowski is the associate pub­lisher/general manager of The Catholic Spirit.
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