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May 20, 2008

Priests and Laity Together in Ministry - The Changing U.S. Parish - How to Speak With Nonbelievers About God -- Polarization - Prison Ministry - Sacramental Ministry to Immigrants

In this edition:
-- Ministry summit in Orlando discusses parishes in transition.
-- Dealing with a culturally diverse church: Ministry summit.
-- The polarization in U.S. parishes and dioceses: Ministry summit.
-- Together in ministry without competition: Ministry summit.
-- Irish archbishop discusses priests and laity together in ministry.
-- Pastoral and sacramental ministry to immigrants.
-- Current quotes to ponder: U.S. priestly ordination class of 2008; charting a path into the future for Catholic schools; prison ministry.
-- How to speak about God with nonbelievers.
-- The approach taken by St. Paul in his conversation with the intellectuals of Athens.

Ministry Summit Discusses Parishes in Transition

"Today, between 35 percent and 40 percent of all Catholic parishes in the U.S. share their pastor with at least one other parish," Precious Blood Father Robert Schreiter said in his address at the closing of the National Ministry Summit April 20-23 in Orlando, Fla. Father Schreiter, a theology professor at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, summed up the principal concerns heard about ministry in the summit's discussions, and he explored key challenges church ministry is facing.

The ministry summit was sponsored by six national Catholic organizations: the National Federation of Priests Councils; the National Association of Church Personnel Directors; the National Association of Diaconate Directors; the National Association for Lay Ministry; the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development; and the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association.

Two-thirds of U.S. dioceses "have more parishes than priests," Father Schreiter said. Furthermore, he commented, developments related to "pastoring multiple parishes" - developments that can encompass twinning and/or clustering of parishes, and parish closings or mergers -- are occurring so rapidly "that adequate preparation for the transition is not possible." He said, "Studies show that only 4 percent of dioceses have training programs for this; and only 13 percent have written policies to give guidance in these transitions."

Marti Jewell, another speaker at the summit, also addressed the challenge of "multiple-parish pastoring." Jewell is director of the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, which sponsored the summit. Jewell said: "The truth is, multiple-parish pastoring entails unique, identifiable skills that cannot be reduced to providing the same ministry in more places. Yet only a handful of dioceses are providing formal training for this emerging form of leadership."

Jewell said that after one summit workshop on this topic, a pastor said to the group: "I though it was hard because I was dumb. Now I know it is hard because it is hard." Multiple-parish pastoring indeed is hard, Jewell agreed. But he said, "We found that many pastors who are in multiple parish settings are highly creative and energized by the challenge."

This situation, Father Schreiter said, "has a profound impact on the priests who are serving as parish pastors, since they must spend more time in travel (especially in rural areas) and find themselves more involved with the administration of their parishes than in building bonds with their parishioners. It is a potentially negative factor for recruiting candidates for the diocesan priesthood."

A recurring recommendation heard among summit participants was that research needs to begin into what the changes occurring in U.S. parishes mean "for what constitutes a parish," Father Schreiter said. In addition, he said, summit participants felt that better training programs need to be developed for all parish leaders and that more resources must be devoted to preparing parishes for the transitions they experience.

The situation that has developed "is having a significant impact on how ministry is carried out in parishes as well as on how parish councils and other bodies function," said Father Schreiter.

He pointed out that in urban areas "Catholics already will often visit different parishes until they find one that most suits their tastes and needs." He continued: "What 'parish' will mean in the future will affect how Catholics gain the primary identification that shapes their sense of being Catholic. This will have an impact on the quality and level of loyalty of Catholics to their church."

Another factor in the changing U.S. parish is the emergence of parish life coordinators. Summit participants encouraged a clearer definition of the roles of parish life coordinators and called for "adequate formation for all involved - coordinators, sacramental ministers, pastors, other lay ecclesial ministers and the people served," Father Schreiter said.

Summit participants also felt there is a need in this area for "better communication and circulation of what people are finding as best practices" with regard to the ministry of parish life coordinators, sacramental ministers, etc., Father Schreiter said.

Dealing With a Culturally Diverse Church: Ministry Summit

"Dealing with a culturally diverse church remains perhaps the single greatest challenge that is before the Catholic Church in this country today," Father Schreiter said in his address recapitulating themes of the National Ministry Summit held in Orlando. He commented, "The face of the Catholic Church is changing quickly, and pastoral leadership is having to react more quickly than may be possible for such a large institution."

Summit participants felt that "formation in diversity is urgent for all people in pastoral leadership," Father Schreiter reported. They felt, furthermore, that "formation in diversity should become a constituent part of all programs of faith formation." And participants felt that greater efforts are needed to assure that "the cultural diversity of our church" is reflected in the recruitment of church personnel.

Father Schreiter noted that "many of the groups entering this country and our church at this time have significantly different cultural assumptions about how leadership is exercised, how community is understood, how or even whether rational, abstract planning is undertaken." He said:

"We are in areas here that our church is aware of in some fashion but has still yet to act upon. Some of these pathways are new for everyone in our society, even if its history has been one of immigration."

The Polarization in U.S. Parishes and Dioceses: Ministry Summit

The polarization that Catholics experience in U.S. parishes and dioceses "is not something specific to us; the polarization within the church is fed by polarization in the larger society, evident in electoral politics of the past decade. Other Christian bodies are experiencing polarization as well," Father Schreiter told the National Ministry Summit in Orlando. In a discussion of internal challenges faced by the church, he took up the challenge of polarization.

"The church (as well as the larger U.S. society) has yet to find a way to engage these tensions creatively, that is, without simply deepening divides and creating two irreconcilable camps," Father Schreiter said. With few exceptions, he added, the current polarization "is not about good versus bad, but about Catholics on all sides who love the church deeply and are passionately committed to fidelity to the Gospel."

"Effective pastoral leadership will be key to bringing people together," said Father Schreiter. He told summit participants that "in a church that embraces its cultural diversity, in a church that must help its members live in a pluralistic society, it becomes important to find a way that allows difference of opinion and even constructive disagreement to take place without thinking that that will immediately break our communion."

The "failure so far" to find a way of dealing "with the polarizations we experience in our church is indicative that we have not yet been able to give voice to a theology of communion that provides a safe and respectful space for such disagreement," according to Father Schreiter.

Together in Ministry, Without Competition: Ministry Summit

All those in the church "must be concerned about the promotion of all the charisms in the church, without rivalry or dissension," Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., said in an address to the National Ministry Summit in Orlando. Thus, for example, the charisms of the laity need to be welcomed, but this does not lessen the need for the ordained priesthood, he told summit participants.

"The primary ordering of the church comes in baptism. We start with what we share before what distinguishes us," Bishop Cupich said. He serves as episcopal adviser to the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, which sponsored the summit.

"If the baptized are not encouraged, facilitated, enabled by the church to share their gifts, then their basic call to holiness will not reach its full potential," said Bishop Cupich. "If we are serious about the call to holiness," he said, "then fostering the gifts of all the baptized" is essential.

At the same time, Bishop Cupich said, "the initiative of Christ finds expression in a special way through the ordained, not in a way that diminishes the gifts of others, but, as we have seen, in a way that enriches them and orders them to share in Christ's work of building up the body."

Thus, he said, "just as we need to promote the sharing of gifts of all the baptized, so do we need to have a sense of corporate responsibility for vocations to the ordained ministry." He said, "The ministerial priesthood is a witness within the community of the baptized that Christ takes the initiative."

And Bishop Cupich clarified that in the church "we are not short-changed, impoverished by the gifts of others, as though there is a finite number of gifts and we have to protect our own."

Priests and Laity Together in Ministry

A diocese "is a fellowship of eucharistic communities. All our structures must respect that reality. We are not a business, a benevolent organization, an ideology," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, said in a speech April 27 to members of the archdiocese's parish councils. Thus, ministry needs to "take on the characteristics of fellowship," he said.

It is important to recall, the archbishop said, "that fellowship rather than individualism is the characteristic of ecclesial ministry. Our ministry will be a fellowship between clergy and laity." It also "will be a fellowship of local communities working together for ministry." In fact, because "the very notion of community is changing" at a time of increased mobility and diversity in society, "teams of persons -- priests, deacons and laypersons" are going to need "to work together to support a number of parish communities."

Archbishop Martin said that "very few people's lives are today completely lived within the boundary of a single parish." Thus, "many ministries and services can be better provided at the level of a number of parishes or through the cooperation of neighboring parishes."

If one asked a business school to design a plan of operation for a diocese, would its plan call for the type of fellowship of priests and laity that the archbishop described? Probably not, Archbishop Martin suggested. He said that this fellowship "is not the fruit of the type of analysis by which a business school looks at the effective use of resources." Rather, "it is a fruit of our recognition of the call of all believers to holiness and to be full members of the church of Christ. It is the experience of what the church is." This is something that the Dublin Archdiocese's "relatively short experience with parish pastoral councils has shown us," he said.

A number of tasks for parish councils were identified in the course of the archbishop's speech. For example, he said:

-- Parish councils have it as part of their mission to encourage others "to be more active in their life of faith."

-- "Because of their predominantly lay character," parish councils "can foster a platform for reflection on the family as a resource for society and the church."

-- Parish councils "can provide leadership in ensuring that our immigrants do not feel themselves guests, but full members of our communities."

Pastoral and Sacramental Ministry to Immigrants

Parishes need to be ready when a death occurs in an immigrant's family to assist those in mourning, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn told the mid-May plenary assembly in Rome of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers. What if the death occurs back in the immigrant's homeland?

"Making available the celebration of the Eucharist for someone who has died a long distance away is a wonderful pastoral approach to easing the grief of migrants, who may not be able to return to their home countries to grieve for their loved ones," the bishop explained.

Bishop DiMarzio, a member of the pontifical council, offered concrete suggestions for improving the pastoral care of immigrant families. A May 15 Catholic News Service story reported his comments. Bishop DiMarzio said, for example, that at the time of marriage, the birth of a child or a death in the family, the customs of the immigrant's or migrant's culture of origin must be taken into account and respected as much as possible.

Often, Bishop DiMarzio said, immigrants come from countries where couples must be married civilly prior to celebrating a religious marriage ceremony. But will the religious ceremony take place in the immigrants' new country? The disruptions stemming from migration or a lack of money may mean that immigrants never receive the sacrament of marriage, he said. That is one reason why facilitating the celebration of a sacramental marriage is an important pastoral task, the bishop said.

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the pontifical council, said that the purpose of this plenary meeting was to look into the situation of "families who find themselves, for whatever reasons, separated from their homes and homelands." He said, "The separation of members of the family adds particularly to the miseries related to migration" and "cries out for the promotion of the right to reunification."

Current Quotes to Ponder

Priests Ordained in 2008: "The average age of ordinands for the class of 2008 is 37. Seven in 10 responding ordinands (68 percent) report their primary race or ethnicity as Caucasian, European American or white. One in three ordinands was born outside the United States. More than six in 10 ordinands completed college (61 percent), and more than one in five had a graduate degree (22 percent) before entering the seminary. About two-thirds of ordinands report having full-time work experience before entering the seminary, most often in education. .. Eight in 10 (80 percent) were encouraged to consider the priesthood by a priest. Close to half report that friends, parishioners and their mother also encouraged them to consider priesthood." (From "The Class of 2008: Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood," a survey done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The March 2008 survey received responses from 335 men to be ordained in 2008, out of 401 potential ordinands reported to CARA by theologates, houses of formation, dioceses and religious institutes.)

Catholic Schools: Charting a Path Into the Future: "You know, I often say one of the great strengths of faith-based schools is their autonomy. The great weakness of faith-based schools is their autonomy. Too much reinvention of the wheel. We need to learn how to replicate. Boston College with the National Catholic Educational Association is bringing together the best programs in the country that serve inner-city kids, what we call our endangered species within the Catholic Church. So replication is important. And, you know, sometimes in the Catholic community we need to look back to our founders and at other faith-based communities too -- in early days that weren't the heydays of the '60s, but these were pioneers. And often they embarked upon ventures that never worked, but they kept going, and they kept trying, and they kept courage with very few people, with very few resources, but they were fueled by a mission that they would not surrender, and we need to do the same thing." (Jesuit Father Joseph O'Keefe, dean of the Lynch School of Education at Jesuit-run Boston College, speaking April 24 during the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools)

Prison Ministry: "One overwhelming reality of this job is that the people I am called to serve are not just the Catholic population, not just the Christian population. The people I serve as chaplain include those who profess every religious and nonreligious persuasion known to humankind, and some about which no one has ever previously heard. How can one chaplain begin to approach a population of such unlimited diversity? I prayed and thought about that for a long time, and I came to the notion of 'servant leader.' I can place myself in service to their needs. And I can attempt to be a leader - a role model. Many of the men are in prison at least to some extent because they have never had any good role models in their lives. If I can conduct myself in such a way that at least some of them see me as someone they can look up to, at least that is a small beginning. Perhaps then some of them will come to me and learn that I am someone they can trust. In prison, remember, the first lesson of survival is 'trust no one!'" (Deacon James P. Daly, prison chaplain at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord, quoted in a profile in The Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H.)

When Christians Speak With Nonbelievers About God

"Believers and nonbelievers need to recognize and understand each other better, more accurately, more appreciatively," Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England, said in an address May 8 in London. He wants "religion to be seen to be open to the questions of those who do not believe -- those who call themselves agnostic or atheistic," he said. He spoke in the 2008 Westminster Cathedral lecture series.

"I would want to encourage people of faith to regard those without faith with deep esteem because the hidden God is active in their lives as well as in the lives of those who believe," the cardinal said. At the same time, he commented, "it is no less true that unbelievers might benefit from recognizing that there is something of the believer in every person."

The cardinal thinks that an interesting question to ask about atheism is, "What is the theism that is being denied?" He asked, "Have you ever met anyone who believes what Richard Dawkins doesn't believe in?" What the cardinal usually finds, he explained, is "that the God that is being rejected by such people is a God I don't believe in either. I simply don't recognize my faith in what is presented by these critics as Christian faith."

[Richard Dawkins is the author of the 2006 book "The God Delusion." Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian, spoke recently in U.S. Catholic magazine about Dawkins' view of God and views held by other atheists. She said: "Atheists are rejecting the old images of God that don't really work that well even for Christians anymore. I found a great quote from a review of his book, in which the reviewer said that Dawkins envisions God 'if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized.' This is not the Christian God."]

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor told his audience that today's Christians "need to examine what we might have done to give people a misleading view of God." The cardinal said: "I wonder if we Christians have led people to think that it is easy to talk about God and to think that we know clearly what we are talking about. How much of modern unbelief is a product of a facile, deductive treatment of God so that the God who is often rejected by people is the product of our thinking rather than being God in the mystery of his life?"

With all this in mind, the cardinal proposed that faith today "might be improved by a deeper grasp of the mystery of God on the part of believers." Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor thinks that "if Christians really believed in the mystery of God, [they] would realize that proper talk about God is always difficult, always tentative." Then, after asking why it is that atheists today are "so clear about the God who is rejected," the cardinal said, "A God who can be spoken of comfortably and clearly by human beings cannot be the true God."

Have Christians done something "to generate unbelief?" The cardinal said, "We spoke too easily about God, we spoke perhaps in the wrong way, and we treated God as an idea rather than a living mystery to be approached in silence and prayer rather than in the arguments of the mind." As a consequence, "as science and culture have developed," it is "hardly surprising that there has been resistance to worshiping this idea of God."

According to Cardinal Murphy O-Connor, "it is not that our arguments need to be better," because "in relation to God, arguments are not the primary thing." The cardinal said, "God does not need polemicists on his behalf, but God needs witnesses, and the quality of witness that we give to God is a more effective pointer to God than anything else."

So "the challenge confronting the church today is, as always, how best to communicate the richness and newness of the Gospel message" to others, said Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor. He said, "The centrality of that message is of a God whose love for us is unlimited."

How Paul Conversed With the Intellectuals of Athens

The approach taken in Athens by St. Paul when, in the Acts of the Apostles, he visited the city for the first time was analyzed in Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's May 8 presentation. He said that Paul was "simply appalled" in Athens by the "worship of false idols," by how far the city was "from knowing the one true God." Yet, the cardinal added, "Paul's response to this pagan idolatry is significant: Instead of fulminating against it, he speaks with people in the marketplace, and he engages in conversation the intellectuals of Athens, the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers."

Thus, Paul's "initial revulsion flows into a dialogue with the unbelievers of Athens," said the cardinal. He continued:

"Paul shows, I think, a deep esteem for what he finds in the culture of Athens. The whole episode is a movement from spiritual desolation to a conversation about important things, to addressing the elements of transcendence and hope that the culture implicitly contains." This episode demonstrates "a whole strategy about the properly Christian way to engage a culture that initially seems to be far from and even hostile to God," the cardinal said.

How is Paul's approach a model for ministry today? The starting point today "must be that even in a culture that seems far from God, no one is without God's presence and action," Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said. "None is without God. If we believe in God as the creator of all, this must be true."

"What Christianity does," the cardinal added, "is to make the presence that God has in relation to all human beings explicit, complete and unexpectedly wonderful through his self-gift in Christ."