Bishop W. Shawn McKnight believes God is using the current priest shortage to draw priests, parishioners and the entire diocese closer together.
“While the recent drop in priests available to serve our diocese may feel like a storm on the high seas, we rely on the promise of our Lord that He will not leave us unattended,” he stated in a recent letter to priests of the diocese.
“What our people need to hear from us, and what we need to hear from one another, are assurances of hope,” he wrote.
He pointed out that since the beginning of January, the diocese has experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of three active priests from regular full-time ministry.
In light of that, he asked each pastor to consider whether the Mass schedule currently in place in their parishes could be reduced in a reasonable way.
Specifically, he asked them to consider whether the current Mass schedule reflects a true pastoral need, “or does it include ‘Masses of convenience?’”
The bishop suggested considering ways to expand the seating capacity of churches in order to accommodate all the people with fewer Masses.
Bishop McKnight said the Easter Triduum — the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday — is a good time for neighboring parishes ministered to by one priest to worship together.
“Please consider having an integrated celebration of the Triduum whenever possible,” the bishop wrote to the priests.”
He pointed out that shortly before he became bishop, the diocese undertook in an elaborate, two-year, consultative process to help gauge the vitality and viability of parishes and missions throughout these 38 counties.
The purpose of that process was to draw Catholics into a broader, less insular understanding of the role of their Church in their communities and the larger region.
Collaboration is key. This is much more about responding to God’s will for people to worship and evangelize together, on a much greater scale than is currently taking place, than about the number of available priests, he said.
The viability and vitality process took into account the realities of changing needs and demographics throughout the diocese.
The bishop said it’s essential for the Church to continue following through on the recommendations that came out of that process.
All parishes, large and small, are being affected by these rapidly emerging realities.
Cathedral of St. Joseph parish recently had to adjust its weekday Mass schedules and will soon eliminate one Sunday Mass, due to the loss of its only associate pastor.
Effective March 18, the parish went from two weekday Masses to one — at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays except for 8 a.m. on Wednesdays.
Sunday Mass times as of April 28 will be 8 and 10 a.m.
Father Louis Nelen, pastor of the Cathedral parish, noted that other parishes in Jefferson City and nearby communities offer weekday Masses at other times.
“I acknowledge the strong desire to attend daily Mass at one’s home parish,” Fr. Nelen stated. “But as our priest shortage continues to grow, it will be more urgent than ever to see ourselves as a unified Catholic community in the Jefferson City area.”
He noted that a priest is given the faculty to celebrate one Mass per weekday, with a second Mass permitted in cases of pastoral necessity — such as a Funeral Mass.
“The Church urges her pastors to be prudent, so that the Eucharist will be celebrated with dignity each and every time,” Fr. Nelen wrote.
Last year, for the same reason, St. Peter and Immaculate Conception parishes in Jefferson City reduced the number of weekend Masses.
St. Peter parish eliminated one of its two Saturday evening Vigil Masses and one of its Sunday Morning Masses. Immaculate Conception eliminated a Sunday Morning Mass.
All of these actions reflect situations and trends that are affecting the whole diocese.
“Many of us have been looking at how our Catholic communities have changed in the last two decades, and trying to look into the future to discern what God is calling us to be in the next two decades,” Father Matthew Flatley, pastor of Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Vienna and Holy Guardian Angels parish in Brinktown, recently wrote to his parishioners.
He pointed to a noticeable decline in Mass attendance in parishes throughout the diocese, reflecting a demographic shifts as well as a need to reemphasize the importance of taking an active role in communal worship, fellowship, ministry and outreach.
“We don’t have to resign ourselves to accepting this as a projection for the future,” Fr. Flatley stated. “There is much we can do to make our faith more relevant and more alive.”
He plans to begin meeting with parish leaders in his and neighboring parishes “so we can develop a comprehensive, sustainable plan for a strong Catholic presence in our area — with God’s graces, into the next century!”
“We foresee we will be stronger if we work together,” Fr. Flatley stated.
He noted that any changes that are to come will involve sacrifice that is likely to be shared by parishes throughout the diocese.
Bishop McKnight has been urging parishioners throughout the diocese to take an active role in planning for the future.
“He wants us to live what the documents of the Second Vatican Council have called us to be: a pilgrim people, on a journey of faith together,” Fr. Flatley stated.
Father Anthony Rinaldo, pastor of the Tipton and California parishes, urged his parishioners to take the bishop’s vision to heart.
“Let’s ‘pull together’ as God’s people in this difficult time,” he stated.