The No. 1 response to a survey the diocese circulated last fall regarding the staffing of parishes in 10 counties was a question.
“People seem to think that because of COVID and the world being shut down, we need to shut down, too,” stated LeAnn Korsmeyer, diocesan director of parish and charitable services, who helped facilitate the survey.
“But that’s the last thing we need to be doing,” she said. “We have to prepare for tomorrow. We can’t wait five years from now until we’ve lost more priests to retirement.
“We have to have a plan, a vision,” she stated. “We are called to be warriors for the faith, and this is what warriors do.”
In light of the dramatic decline in Sunday Mass attendance in the last 20 years and the steeply decreasing number of available priests in the diocese, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight sought input from parishioners in Chariton, Cooper, Crawford, Howard, Monroe, Phelps, Pike, Pulaski, Ralls and Saline counties about options for carrying on the work of the Church with fewer priests available to serve each county.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” he stated. “We have to ask the right questions, we have to listen, we have to pray and we have to act.”
He noted that even if there were enough priests to staff all parishes and missions in the diocese at their current level, doing so would not be prudent in light of demographic shifts and other factors.
“How the Church is present in these 10 counties will change,” he stated. “Indeed, it must change in order for the Church to continue to be present in these 10 counties.”
Since 2002, parishes’ self-reporting of Mass attendance has shown a nearly 30-percent decrease in Catholics meeting their Sunday obligation in the diocese.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a Catholic research agency, has seen Catholics self-reporting that they attend Mass every week decline from 30.8 percent to 21.1 percent in the past two decades.
Bishop McKnight pointed out that the sharp decline in the number of available priests as well as in the number of some parishes’ communicants and in the physical condition of several church properties is not unique to this diocese.
“From coast to coast, dioceses large and small are wrestling with these issues,” he said.
Questions and answers
Renee Hanrahan, who has conducted several parish-needs assessments in her home Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, crafted the 14-question survey and interpreted the data.
Adult members of the parishes and missions in Boonville, Bourbon, Brunswick, Clarksville, Crocker, Cuba, Dixon, Fayette, Glasgow, Hurricane Branch, Indian Creek, Indian Grove, Louisiana, Marshall, Monroe City, Perry, Pilot Grove, Richland, Rolla, Rosati, Salisbury, Slater, St. Clement, St. James, St. Robert, Steelville, Sweet Springs and Wien participated in the survey.
Questions focused on the level of growth and engagement in their parish, preferred models of combination and collaboration with neighboring parishes, the number of recent priestly, diaconal and religious vocations from each parish, and the respondent’s own level of involvement.
Mrs. Hanrahan also reviewed U.S. Census figures for each county to find population trends.
She submitted reports and statistical analysis by parish and by county.
Local pastors and parish representatives have reviewed the reports and hammered out proposals for making the best use of fewer available priests to serve each county.
Dec. 31 was the deadline for submitting those proposals.
Working with his priest advisors on the Diocesan Presbyteral Council and his lay advisors on the Diocesan Pastoral Council, Bishop McKnight intends to give clear direction to the Priest Personnel Board when it begins its deliberations this month.
Most changes in status for parishes and missions will likely coincide with the priest assignments that will take effect July 1.
Something to say
Postcards, e-mails, pulpit announcements and articles in The Catholic Missourian invited parishioners in the 10 counties to go online last September and answer the survey questions.
Paper copies of the survey were made available to people without internet access and in Spanish to people who understand that language better.
Survey respondents were given the option of leaving open-ended comments. More than 1,300 people did so.
Most of those comments focused on the status and structure of individual parishes.
“However, 20 percent focused on the importance of having Catholic schools to instill religious values and the importance of religious vocations,” said Mrs. Hanrahan.
Other comments pertained to the need to connect better with young people who may no longer participate in PSR and to teens and young adults who have fallen away as they leave high school.
“Several respondents stressed the positive impact that having a Newman Center on college campuses has for students in growing their spiritual life,” said Mrs. Hanrahan.
A few respondents raised the issue of co-responsibility, saying it is important for pastors to allow laypeople “to give them a helping hand to lighten their load,” she said.
Many respondents said they were grateful to be asked for their opinion.
Things in common
In analyzing the responses, Mrs. Hanrahan found stark contrasts between perceptions and the reality of parish numbers and population figures.
“A lot of people suggested that their parish is growing, but the census data is telling us otherwise,” she said.
While the overall population in the diocese has grown slightly in the past 20 years, the Catholic element of that population has declined overall from 10.26 percent to under 8 percent. And for some of the communities in the 10 counties, the decline is even more significant.
Several distinct themes permeate the responses.
For instance, many respondents believe parishes with schools with increasing enrollment should have resident pastors.
Of the nine Catholic schools in the 10 counties, St. Peter School in Marshall, St. Joseph School in Pilot Grove, St. Joseph School in Salisbury and Holy Rosary School in Monroe City have increased enrollment. St. Patrick School in Rolla is holding steady.
Many respondents wrote of the role viable parishes have in helping sustain the health and success of smaller communities — all the more so if the parish maintains a Catholic school.
Common concerns included “the elderly and families with small children if local parishes are closed, as many feel these populations won’t drive far to attend Mass or other parish activities, especially during winter months,” said Mrs. Hanrahan.
Another common theme included figuring out which parish administrative tasks could be taken up by qualified deacons or laypeople, freeing up priests more for spiritual and sacramental duties.
A significant number expressed concerns about the long-term effects the COVID pandemic will have on parish participation in the future.
Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, vicar general for the diocese and pastor of St. Michael Parish in Russellville, is the bishop’s liaison to the 10 County Initiative.
From both the field and central command, he sees firsthand the dilemma vexing bishops throughout most of North America.
“We can wish we had more priests or that they were younger or what have you,” he said. “But the fact is, this is what we have right now.
“And we have to use them in the best way possible for the building up of the Kingdom of God without ruining their health, so they can continue to minister in the future,” he stated.
There are currently 63 priests in active ministry in the Jefferson City diocese.
Five of them will be eligible to retire within the next five years. Another 10 will be eligible within the five years after that.
Of the 63, 36 will be retired or eligible for retirement in 20 years.
Fifteen of the 63 are priests from dioceses all over the world who are serving here temporarily.
The diocese currently has seven seminarians in various stages of priestly formation, with no guarantee that all will be ordained.
“We cannot deny the facts,” said Mrs. Korsmeyer. “Take all the emotion away, and that is the reality we are facing.”
Father Gregory Meystrik likened the situation to a kitchen conundrum.
“It’s almost as if we have 12 people coming over for dinner and only have six potatoes,” said Fr. Meystrik, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Rolla, Immaculate Conception Parish in St. James and St. Anthony Parish in Rosati.
“You can cut them in half, mash them, mix in some onions or fix some mac ’n cheese for the kids,” he said. “But there’s got to be some kind of a change.”
At the same time, the Church must focus on growing by leading people to Christ, together.
“This is an opportunity for us to work on making our parishes into what we consistently hear people say they want their parishes to be,” Mrs. Korsmeyer said. “Laypeople need to be trained in the various roles they’re being called to serve in. We all need to work together to help make our parishes true centers of charity and sanctuaries of mercy.”
They also need to be welcoming communities.
Some may need to “widen their tables” in order to welcome more people from surrounding parishes and missions.
This can include a growing number of Spanish-speaking Catholics. It could also require parishes to encourage divorced and separated Catholics to find a place at that table.
Others may need to reconsider youth ministry so that young people feel that their unique gifts and needs are appreciated, instead of expecting them to take part in programs that are no longer effective, or to serve the expectations of older parishioners.
“When people feel welcome, they’re going to feel comfortable inviting other people to join them,” said Mrs. Korsmeyer.
A place for everyone
Mrs. Hanrahan was impressed by how many parishioners “really, really know and love the history” of their parish.
“When you have young people who write in the survey that they moved back to their roots so their kids could have a good Catholic education, you see what an important part that was of them growing into who they are today,” she said.
She suggested that the stalwart leaders in every parish must work harder on drawing more people, especially young people, into the process.
“We need everyone to know that they belong and that their God-given gifts are essential for carrying out the mission of the Church, which is the mission of Christ,” she said.
Mrs. Korsmeyer said now is a great time to talk about vocations and the role every family plays in promoting them.
“Just being open to God’s will — are we having those conversations?” she asked. “Are we open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our family, introducing the faith to our family in a way that they ask God what His will is for them in their life?”
She acknowledged that fear and sadness often come with times of change.
“But if we also see this as an opportunity to say ‘yes’ to God and to grow in faith and grow our membership, then some of that fear will go away,” she said.
She believes the 10 County Initiative and the concurrent pastoral planning process for parishes and the diocese will bring historic opportunities for collaboration among parishes and communities.
“When our parishes can work together for the greater good, then our whole community is blessed by that,” she said.
Fr. Meystrik made a clear distinction between the ministry of priests and the ministry of the Church.
“The Priesthood is important, but it’s certainly not the whole thing,” he said. “Some people might not have access to a priest at all times. But all of us need to be ministering to one another, and in that way, the ministry of the Church will continue.”
Andrew Miller, a member of the St. Patrick Parish Pastoral Council in Rolla, wrote of his hope for the outcome of the bishop’s 10 County Initiative.
“I would propose that we should be asking ourselves how much more we can do to ensure that every Catholic in Phelps County feels a part of the Church here, every possible act of charity and mercy is provided for, and that we are a Catholic community that people would drive anywhere in the county to be part of for Mass, for a feastday celebration or parish event because the parish is that alive in the Spirit and full of Christ’s love,” he said.