`Is your parish viable, vibrant? bishop asks
By Fabvienen Taylor
JACKSON — Is your parish/mission a viable faith community? Is it a vibrant faith community?
Those are the questions Bishop Joseph Latino is asking parishioners of all parishes/missions in the Diocese of Jackson to study and answer.
He sent the requests in a letter to parish leaders on Monday, Oct. 11.
His request is a follow-up to the Thursday, Sept. 30, workshop “Mission and Ministry in Mississippi: — Facing the Future” attended by over 120 pastors, associates, lay ecclesial ministers and pastoral ministers at St. Dominic Centre.
The purpose of the workshop was to bring the leadership together to reflect on and address changes in pastoral ministry arising from the decreasing numbers of priests in the diocese.
At the workshop, members of the Mission and Mininstry Task Force presented participants with detailed facts, statistics and statements about current and projected realities of pastoral leadership, parish/mission demographics, and the questions, challenges, and opportunities in identifying, securing and continuing to build vibrant faith communities.
During the Sept. 30 workshop, the Mission and Ministry Task Force provided a list of recommendations for parishes and missions to use in addressing pastoral ministry options.
“At the workshop we were encouraged to look at the issues facing our diocese from different or new perspectives,” said Bishop Latino in the letter. He advised people to “think ‘outside the box’ and look beyond your own parish/mission. There may be other solutions and recommendations you would like to make. We invite you to share those.”
All of the workshop materials and additional resources have been sent to parishes/missions to facilitate meetings and discussions among pastoral and financial councils and other groups of interested parishioners in addressing the questions asked by Bishop Latino.
Parishes/missions are asked to return their response forms by Saturday, Nov. 20, to Msgr. Elvin Sunds, vicar general and member of the task force.
When the response forms have been returned, parishes/missions will be asked to conduct area meetings to assess the recommendations.
In his letter, Bishop Latino said “I am aware every parish/mission wants to think it is viable and vibrant, but we need to challenge ourselves to be very honest in our perceptions.
“The fact is we are no longer able to keep the commitments made in 2005 (‘Mission and Ministry in Mississippi Area Plans’),” the bishop said.
“One commitment specifically said we will try to serve every faith community. Given our present reality, that may not be possible.
“The questions may be, ‘Is this community viable now? How long can this faith community remain viable? What do we need to do to become more viable in the days and years ahead? Can the members of this faith community be served in other ways?’”
In the 2005 plan, Msgr. Sunds said parishes/missions in 20 specific areas were asked how they might address the priest shortage in light of their needs and resources.
“The plans people came up with were good and we thought we could live with them for the next several years. Unfortunately they have had to be revised because we have fewer priests than we thought we would have at this point,” he said.
The Mission and Ministry Task Force has been meeting for over a year trying to prepare for the decline in the number of priests, he said.
Last summer the task force met with the superiors of religious order priests and with the superiors of women and men religious orders serving in the diocese.
“In planning for our future we discussed our needs and their commitments to the diocese in providing priests and religious sisters. Many of our lay ecclesial ministers are sisters and many of them are of retirement age or older. So they will be retiring too,” Msgr. Sunds said.
Unlike in some rural areas, most parishes in the Jackson area have not had the experience of not having Mass every Sunday, he said.
“People, particularly outside the Jackson metro area who are feeling the decline in the number of priests, who are feeling the hurt, ask me, ‘When is Jackson going to feel this?’”
Msgr. Sunds said 16 parishes in the diocese do not have Mass every Sunday.
They have Mass twice a month, and on the other Sundays, Sunday in the Absence of a Priest or a Word and Communion Service.
“Where a parish normally has a priest, the priest has a right to have a vacation. If that means he can’t find a substitute and the choice is between having a vacation or a Word and Communion Service, there will be a Word and Communion Service.
“That is going to become more prevalent because the number of priests continues to decline,” Msgr. Sunds said. “And it is not just going to happen in rural or small communities but in cities and in larger parishes too.”
Noting a recent Sunday when a Jackson pastor had to be out of town and could not find a replacement, parishioners were advised to attend Mass at a nearby parish.
In a lot of rural areas, there is no nearby parish for people to go to, he said.
“That recent event was a teachable moment. In our diocese that could likely happen more and more.”
By the end of 2010, 11 active priests will be over 70, the age of retirement, he said.
Most retired priests in the diocese are filling in for pastors on vacation, who are ill, or out-of-town.
“They are providing a valuable service. If it were not for retired priests filling in there would be more parishes and missions without Mass,” said Msgr. Sunds.
Currently in the diocese, there are 60 priests — 35 diocesan and 25 religious order priests — active in ministry who are under the age of retirement.
There are 102 parishes/missions.
On a related note, due to their decreasing numbers, in two years the Glenmary Missioners religious order priests and pastoral associates will leave the diocese. They minister primarily in parishes/missions in the northeast section of the diocese.
Msgr. Sunds said in the Jackson area there are two sets of parishes sharing one pastor and in nearby Yazoo City and Belzoni, one pastor is shared by three parishes.
Msgr. Sunds said people in parishes and missions need to be educated about the issues and difficulties facing the diocese so they will be aware of them and not be surprised.
“We are asking leaders of parishes and missions to meet with pastoral and finance councils and with as many interested people as possible,” he said.
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