July 11, 2014

Rejoice in the Lord

Connected in the Spirit: Merged parishes

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinLast week, I wrote about Pope Francis’ dream of a “missionary option” for parishes and dioceses. Simply stated, the Holy Father is challenging us to place missionary discipleship and service on behalf of others ahead of what he calls “self-preservation.”

This is not an easy task. As I mentioned last week, we do have a stewardship responsibility to care for the human, physical and financial resources entrusted to our care.

The Church in central and southern Indiana was built by our grandparents in the faith, many of whom were poor immigrants who came to this region in search of freedom and a better life. What they sacrificed to build our parishes, schools, seminaries, religious communities and social service agencies can never be minimized or taken for granted. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude, and the only way we can ever hope to repay them is by being good stewards of their legacy.

The legacy that we are called to steward responsibly is not one of bricks and mortar. Nor is it the preservation of a museum-like dedication to our history.

No, the legacy of faith that has been handed on to us is a dynamic reality. It is a tradition of worship, preaching, sacraments, faith formation and education, community life and service to others, especially the poor and vulnerable. This vibrant tradition of Catholic faith and practice is our inheritance. Our job is to grow it and share it generously with others!

Pope Francis urges us to be “spirit-filled evangelizers” who never tire of proclaiming the Gospel of joy. As the Holy Father writes in “Evangelii Gaudium,” “The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself ” (#27). To achieve genuine spiritual renewal as communities of faith, we must make sure that our structures support and encourage the “missionary option” that the pope reminds us is the essential mission of our archdiocese and of each of our parishes.

As most faithful Catholics in our archdiocese know, over the years my predecessors and I have occasionally had to make the difficult decision to close or merge parishes.

The term “merged parishes” describes a new configuration in which an existing parish is entirely joined to another. In these cases, the independent identity of one of the parishes will cease with the merger, and its members and assets will be incorporated into another. The loss of a parish’s independent identity is always painful—most especially for those parishioners whose daily experience of the Church has centered on their home parish.

My own family experienced this in Stoney Pointe, Ontario, Canada, several years ago. The parish where many of my sisters and brothers were baptized, confirmed and received their first holy Communion; where they went to Catholic school and learned their faith; where they played sports; and where our father was buried, no longer exists. My mother was especially hurt by this decision. Fortunately, with the help of God’s grace and the support of her family and friends, Mom was able to look beyond the pain and find hope and consolation in another parish community where she remains active to this day.

It’s not easy to lose your home parish. All we can do to help those who are suffering the loss of their spiritual home is pray that God’s grace will sustain them.

And, of course, we must support our brothers and sisters and make sure they are welcomed warmly into new parish families. Above all, we must rededicate ourselves to the missionary spirit that all Catholics, and all parish communities, are called to live as ambassadors of Jesus Christ in our homes, our neighborhoods and throughout the whole world.

When a parish loses its independent identity, it does not lose its history, traditions or memories (both joyful and sad). Let’s find the right ways to help one another share these memories and carry on our traditions in new ways—as spirit-filled evangelizers dedicated to proclaiming the joy of the Gospel to everyone we meet here at home and in all corners of the world!

Let us ask the Holy Spirit to continue to be with us as we extend the planning process we call Connected in the Spirit to every parish in our archdiocese, so that all of us may be missionary disciples who build up the Church in central and southern Indiana. †

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