Archbishop John C. Nienstedt: We ve got to look beyond the confines of this parish, to work as Catholics, have a more universal understanding of the church, together. (Pioneer Press: John Doman) The architect of the largest restructuring of the local Roman Catholic church in more than 60 years spoke publicly about the plan for the first time Monday, outlining a new direction for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, sharing his experiences with church downsizing elsewhere and revealing his understanding of the emotions parishioners might be feeling — and how they can appeal his decisions.
"Part of my compassion for people is we've been telling them for decades now they have to be supportive of their parish — we want them to go to church there on Sunday, we want them to put their envelope in, we want them to be active in the church," Archbishop John C. Nienstedt said. "Now, we're telling them something a little different. We're saying, 'You know, we've got to look beyond the confines of this parish, to work as Catholics, have a more universal understanding of the church, together.' "
Nienstedt, 63, met with the Pioneer Press during a series of media interviews Monday after the weekend release of the restructuring plan for the archdiocese — 21 parishes scheduled to merge into 14 other parishes; 33 joined together in pastor-sharing clusters; 25 more asked to share programming and staffing resources.
While the plan has been unveiled, the next stage — implementing the changes — will require the efforts and time of the archdiocese's 800,000 members and 302 priests.
Here are the key issues Nienstedt touched on during the conversation:
BEYOND THE PARISH
"Over the weekend, I think we've done a good job of getting out the facts, the basic data of the plan, but I think what we need to do now is explain the vision behind the facts.
"The vision is that we have looked and evaluated ourselves, and we see that we're really bogged down with a lot of buildings that we don't necessarily need in order to advance the mission, that people have shifted over the years, the demographics have changed, so people aren't in the places where we have a lot of our buildings.
"How do we pursue the mission that Christ has given to us to teach the gospel, to teach the message of our faith, to hand that down to our children, to be concerned about the poor, reaching out to the immigrants? How do we do that, when we're still bogged down?
"So change is very necessary for us, but the change is driven by the vision, the vision of what it means to be a church of communion, faith, hope and love, that is reaching out with Christ's love, compassion and his truth."
"I was in Detroit as rector of the seminary (Sacred Heart Major Seminary, 1988-94) when they undertook a strategic plan to restructure the parishes in the inner city. It was either 26 or 29 parishes that were slated to close. I was able to learn from that experience what were the positive and what were the negative repercussions of that.
"That was a particularly painful one, and I think part of the problem was that they had the announcement made and they didn't have any plans to have an appeals process — it was just going to be cut and dried.
"They changed their minds on that and ended up having an appeals, and I think that was very, very helpful to the whole process.
"When I got to the Diocese of New Ulm (as bishop in 2001), they were in the process of doing their third strategic plan.
"We took the better part of two years to take a look at the situation as it was, because I insisted that the schools be a part of it. When you put schools together into this process, it becomes much more complicated, as we've seen here.
"Again, that was a totally consultative process. Every time the committee of parishes came up with a new draft, we had all the pastoral leaders, the priests and the deacons who were running the parishes, come together and talk about it. So we had 15 drafts and 15 town meetings. When we got to the 15th meeting, they said, 'Bishop, do something with this, because we don't want to see this again.'
"But you know, the process was good because everyone owned it by the time it came out. Everybody was on board. And that was so much easier to implement. I'm seeing that happen here, too."
TIES TO A PARISH
"I know the attachment people have (to their parish) because my parents, as they got older, they moved out to a condo that was outside the confines of their parish (St. Paul's on the east side of Detroit — also Nienstedt's childhood parish), but they still maintained their envelope every week, and they still were registered there. They also registered at the local parish, which they attended during the week.
"But on Sundays, they always went back to St. Paul's, because my mother wanted to be buried from there, and thanks be to God, both of them were."
"In New Ulm, when we had a church that merged or closed, I went there and celebrated the final mass and participated in the celebration that they had afterward. So I'm happy to do whatever the parishes (here) would like me to do.
"Again, I think one of the things we may not have said here is that we're going to take our time to implement this plan. It doesn't have to be immediate, and if some of the parishes require more time than the others, so be it.
"(During the 20-month planning process), we had 159 consultations throughout the archdiocese. I think everyone who wanted to speak had a chance to speak."
Parishes have until Oct. 27 to appeal the restructuring as outlined in the strategic plan. Nienstedt will review all appeals.
"I was the one who insisted on that, that we have that appeals process. I think that's a necessary part of the whole process.
"You might want to know that two or three weeks ago, I contacted all of the pastors who would be involved in mergers. So they've already had an opportunity to respond to me. And in some cases, their response made a big difference in terms of what the ultimate decisions were. So we're very open to getting that.
"If we've missed something, if there's something that's been overlooked, we're willing to take a look at that." Pioneer Press