The late Father Henry Reichert of Tipton once proclaimed, “The best song has never been sung. It’s waiting out there for all of us to sing it and bring the Gospel to the world.”
New verses will be composed this Lent as small groups in parishes throughout the diocese enter the next phase of discernment for the diocesan pastoral plan.
All parishioners are being encouraged to meet in small groups four times during Lent to pray, learn, discuss and listen.
In those 90-minute gatherings, they will consider how their parishes can better reflect the ideals set forth in the Bible, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, “Joy of the Gospel.”
They will focus on the parish as “the presence of the Church in a given territory,” not just for those who are registered and come to Mass.
They will assess how well clergy and laypeople in their parish carry-out their God-given roles in cooperation with one another, and the extent to which parishioners’ relationship with God moves them to give back some of what they have in gratitude.
They will search for ways to make their parishes more welcoming and hospitable.
They will look at unmet needs in their communities and suggest concrete, sustainable ways to address those needs and help their parishes become known to all people as centers of mercy and charity.
They will seek divine insight into what God wants their parishes to do and become.
“It starts with you,” stated Bishop W. Shawn McKnight. “Everyone, by virtue of his or her baptism, is called to participate in the life and mission of the Church.”
The bishop spoke to about 300 parish leaders at a Feb. 8 assembly in the Cathedral of St. Joseph.
Those leaders — along with priests, deacons and parish life collaborators — will help organize and promote participation in the small, faith-sharing groups during Lent, with materials provided by diocesan staff.
“I’m not asking you to think about what you want,” he noted. “I’m asking you to discern through this process, ‘What is the will of God? What is God asking of us, here and now?”
After completing each Lenten session, each small group will submit a report to the pastor.
In May and June, the pastors will meet with their parish pastoral councils to assemble a pastoral plan for the next three to five years for the parish.
Each parish’s plan will then be submitted to Bishop McKnight.
Then, with the Diocesan Pastoral Council, his priest advisors and the Chancery staff, the bishop will discern a pastoral plan for the diocese, geared toward helping the parishes carry-out their individual pastoral plans.
“It will be our job — my job as bishop, the job of the Chancery — to assist the parishes in fulfilling their specific plans for what they want to have accomplished over the next three years,” he said.
In that way, said Bishop McKnight, the diocesan pastoral plan will be “from the ground up, something that’s very much a part of the whole Church and not just from one individual’s perspective.”
Seeking concrete solutions
The bishop emphasized that this pastoral planning process is not about closing parishes or raising money.
“I want to focus solely on what your parish should be doing,” he said. “Charity and mercy is the goal, and the way we get there is through co-responsibility and the spirituality of stewardship.”
Each small group session will include prayer, passages from Scripture and the documents of the Church, questions for discussion, and simple, concrete questions about what needs to be done.
“One of the goals of this process is for each parish to identify an unmet social need within the territory of your parish and address it in a sustainable way,” said Bishop McKnight.
Father Jason Doke, diocesan moderator of the curia, said the simpler and more targeted the ideas that come out of the small groups, the better.
“These are concrete things, programs, that we can put in place in the parish, that are attainable and manageable and can be carried-out on a continuing basis,” he said.
Bishop McKnight said all of this will be an important part of restoring to parishes a sense of their responsibility to minister to all people and institutions within their territorial boundaries.
“The mission of the Church has to be carried-out in that territory, in and through the parish,” he said. “Because if the parish doesn’t do it, no one else will.”
He addressed concerns about why the planning process does not specifically address vocations, and why the people are being called to take part in the planning process when the bishop has the final say.
“Fulfilling the dream of developing a culture of co-responsibility and the spirituality of stewardship will not only accomplish the ultimate goal of parishes being recognized as centers of charity and mercy but will also bring new vitality to the parishes and will help us reach out to young people and promote vocations,” he said.
Bishop McKnight emphasized that stewardship is not a Catholic fundraising scheme.
“That is the most pernicious lie and difficulty we have to deal with in implementing what the Second Vatican Council was calling for: full participation of the laity in the life and mission of the Church,” he said.
“Stewardship,” he emphasized, “is about your whole self: How are you invested? How are you responding to what God has given to you in terms of your time, talent and treasures, in terms of participating in the life and mission of the Church?”
Bishop McKnight pointed to Pope Francis’s renewed emphasis on the Church being mission-oriented.
He also referred to the Gospel According to St. Mark, in which Jesus’s most profound messages come through action and encounter.
“Sometimes, people need to be touched, as Jesus in the Gospel of Mark touched the leper and healed him,” said Bishop McKnight.
He asserted that the same kind of personal touch is what draws people into communion or back into communion with the Church.
That’s why the parish and diocesan pastoral plans must take into serious consideration the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, he said.
The attendees of the Feb. 8 gathering watched a video of Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, addressing the U.S. Catholic bishops at their fall meeting in Baltimore last November.
Bishop Barron talked about the growing segment of the U.S. population who say they are unaffiliated with any faith community. That group, commonly referred to as “nones,” includes a significant number of young people who have left the Catholic Church.
Bishop Barron offered and elaborated on five paths for parishes to engage and re-engage young people:
Bishop McKnight encouraged everyone who takes part in one of the faith-sharing groups to watch the Bishop Barron video, which is available at diojeffcity.org.
Fr. Doke said building a pastoral plan from the bottom up can be daunting and intimidating. But the materials provided for the Lenten faith-sharing groups offer an effective way to accomplish it, one step at a time.
“We’re breaking it down to: What are our strengths? Where do we need to grow? And how are we going to accomplish that?” he said.
To shed light on the process, Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO) is providing information about social vulnerabilities in each county of the diocese, to help determine unmet needs.
CCCNMO Executive Director Dan Lester noted that most parishes are already committed to works of charity and mercy.
“Could we be doing more to break out and do more within the community?” he asked. “We can help you with the data, but you probably have a good idea of what the challenges are, what the needs are in your communities.”
LeAnn Korsmeyer, Director of Parish and Charitable Services, said the success of the planning process will depend on as many people as possible taking part in the small-group discussions and discernment.
“We all have something to contribute,” she said. “Everybody has a voice. Everyone has a story. Everyone has a need.”
She likened the parish leaders who were in the cathedral to trained warriors.
“You are here for a purpose,” she said. “I believe if you go back to your parish with the mission, with a ministry in mind, with something you know needs to happen, and you call on other people and ask them to be part of this pastoral process, to get behind the bishop and all he is planning and doing, we will see great things happen.”
All the materials, including the small-group discussion booklets, answers to frequently asked questions, and Bishop Robert Barron’s video on ways to help young people stay Catholic, can be found online at https://diojeffcity.org/better-together-pastoral-planning-process/