Priests throughout the Jefferson City diocese are settling into new or modified assignments, following a large round of pastoral appointments that took effect July 1.
Many of them are entering important discussions with parishioners on how best to meet the spiritual needs of their communities, which are changing along with the nation and world around them.
“This is anything but business as usual,” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight insisted. “We’re answering the call to be different and do things differently.”
It will mean applying new levels of creativity and cooperation toward tending to the spiritual and temporal needs of all people within each parish’s boundaries.
While only 8 percent of the population in the 38 counties of the diocese is Catholic, canon law defines the parish as being a community of the Christian faithful responsible for the mission of the Church in its territorial boundary (Canon 515).
It’s a big responsibility and calls all parishioners to higher levels of accountability in helping, welcoming and ministering to their neighbors, both seen and unseen.
It will require working to reverse the recent steep declines in Mass attendance (approximately 30 percent since 2000) and participation in the sacraments.
It will likely mean drawing communities more closely together in carryingout the essential ministries of forming lifelong followers of Christ and providing regular sacramental encounters with Him for all the faithful.
“What this will all look like has yet to be determined,” the bishop stated. “But it will most certainly look different. Because standing still while the world continues to change around us is impossible.”
The right questions
The discernment process is already well under way for the people in more than a quarter of the diocese’s 38 counties.
Last year, parishioners in Chariton, Cooper, Crawford, Howard, Monroe, Phelps, Pike, Pulaski, Ralls and Saline counties were invited to answer a 14-question survey about options for carrying-on and even expanding the work of the Church with fewer priests available to serve each county.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” Bishop McKnight told the people. “We have to ask the right questions, we have to listen, we have to pray and we have to act.”
A total of 1,777 adults took part in the survey, which was administered online and on paper, from a pool of approximately 10,000 registered parishioners.
Respondents represented the parishes and missions in Boonville, Bourbon, Brunswick, Clarksville, Crocker, Cuba, Dixon, Fayette, Glasgow, Hurricane Branch, Indian Creek, Indian Grove, Louisiana, Marshall, Monroe City, Paris, Perry, Pilot Grove, Richland, Rolla, Rosati, Salisbury, Slater, St. Clement, St. James, St. Robert, Steelville, Sweet Springs and Wien.
Renee Hanrahan, an adept analyst who loves the Church and wants it to thrive for many generations, tabulated and analyzed the survey results, along with data from the U.S. Census and other sources, and presented multifaceted reports to Bishop McKnight and his advisors.
Based on those reports, priest and lay representatives from each parish in the 10 counties worked together on plans for increased collaboration in anticipation of fewer available priests.
Their recommendations figured heavily into months of deliberations among Bishop McKnight, the Diocesan Presbyteral Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council.
Those informed discussions helped the bishop to give clear direction to the diocesan Priest Personnel Board, which advises him on making priest assignments.
“I am eternally grateful for all of your prayers and honest answers,” Bishop McKnight told the people who took part in the survey and in forging the recommendations for each county.
“It is evident to me and to everyone who helps me make important decisions that you care deeply about your faith and your community and are willing to go to great lengths to pass that along to those who come after you,” he said.
Father Gregory Meystrik, VF is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Rolla, Immaculate Conception Parish in St. James and St. Anthony Parish in Rosati, and dean of the diocese’s Southeast Deanery.
He said that throughout the 10-county initiative, he’s been impressed with people’s flexibility and willingness to sacrifice, along with their desire to have the Holy Eucharist available locally at every parish.
“They know that something has to change,” Fr. Meystrik noted, “and there’s an element of mourning that goes with knowing they might have to experience the sacrificial loss of something they once had.”
However, being given a voice in the process and being asked how they can assist is a blessing and a consolation, he said.
Sarah Robinson, a member of St. Clement Parish in St. Clement, is a Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) representative for the Central Deanery.
She said that what she liked about this process is that people were invited into a conversation.
“Everybody knows that something different needs to happen,” she noted. “But when people are invited into the conversation, they take responsibility for the decisions that need to be made, and they are ultimately more accepting of them.”
Not every recommendation that came from the discussions could be put into action, but all were taken into serious account and will influence future pastoral assignments in the years to come.
This will become increasingly consequential as more current pastors reach retirement age in the next few years.
“What’s important is that we continue to plan for what is to come, confident and even joyful in our ability to meet the challenges we face with God’s help,” said Bishop McKnight.
“Fruitful and enlightening”
LeAnn Korsmeyer, diocesan director of parish and charitable services, has been part of the discussions surrounding the 10-county initiative since they began.
She said she’s impressed with the level of engagement people have maintained throughout the process.
“What people are telling us is, ‘We want to collaborate, to work with our priests, to become a stronger Church,’” she said.
She believes the process has opened up new doors to collaboration among parishes and among ordained and lay people.
“It’s not just about making the most of our own parishes and our own resources,” she noted. “It’s about working together and combining the gifts each of us possesses in order to bring about a stronger Church.”
She believes this kind of collaboration with a common goal — namely, the salvation of souls and the desire to spend eternity with Christ — leads to a mindset of people accompanying one another on life’s journey.
“The 10-county process is helping us enter that mindset more effectively,” she said.
It has given parishioners occasion to ask who the people are who come to church, why they come, what they need, whether their immediate and long-term needs are being met in the parish, and most importantly, if they’re being drawn closer to God and His Church.
“Everyone comes to us for different reasons,” Mrs. Korsmeyer noted. “The more we concern ourselves with meeting people where they’re at, the more we’ll be inclined to make sacrifices and work more closely with our neighboring parishes.”
She pointed out that the bishop’s staff in the Chancery is available to help parishes find and develop the resources required to minister to people where their needs are, such as youth ministry, Hispanic ministry, stewardship, and preparation for marriage.
“In that way, the 10-county initiative has been very fruitful and enlightening, in that it has given us a greater understanding of the needs of the people,” she said.
Bishop McKnight called for continued prayers, openness and cooperation as the newly assigned pastors, their parishioners and collaborators in ministry become acquainted and continue refining and implementing the diocesan pastoral plan and the parish pastoral plans that flow from it.
There will be important discussions about scheduling weekend Masses and the sacraments, adopting new structures for parish organization and governance, helping and evangelizing more people and creating a deeper culture of welcome and encounter.
Mrs. Korsmeyer pointed out that the Church is constantly in discernment, and that these conversations are always going to be a movement of the Holy Spirit.
“There’s always going to be a movement of the Holy Spirit as long as we’re walking in the will of God,” she said. “So just because we have a conversation once, that doesn’t mean we’re going to come to a conclusion and move on.
“The Church will always be having these conversations as long as they lead us to goodness and truth and holiness and a closer relationship with God,” she said.
Bishop McKnight said all of these decisions must be made with humility, openness and a prayerful focus on God, Who knows what’s best for today’s parishioners, for all who are yet to be born and for all still waiting to be welcomed.
“Not our will be done, but God’s, with His help and our grateful, enthusiastic ‘yes!’” he said.