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Archdiocese of Cincinnati prepares to reorganize parishes

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With fewer Catholics and fewer priests, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is preparing to unite parishes into groups called “families” – a reorganization that could steer some churches in southwestern Ohio toward reduced use or eventual closure , although no closure is imminent.

Called “Beacons of Light,” a reorganization plan is expected to be unveiled on October 1, with a finalization of the plan slated for this winter.

The implications are significant for the religious life of the approximately 160,000 registered Catholic homes in southwest Ohio, with the plan affecting, or potentially, parish operations, Mass schedules, employment, and education. children and more.

A “family” of parishes is a group of several parishes headed by the same pastor. Details of which parishes it will be proposed to link together are not public, but Archbishop Dennis Schnurr – in an almost 20-minute video interview on the Archdiocese’s “Beacons of Light” website – has said the “families” could include up to six or seven parishes.

“Not all, but some, depending on the size of the parish and the distance between parishes,” Schnurr said. “All of these factors will be taken into account. “

“No longer viable”

Presented with questions for this story, a representative of the Archdiocese referred to the Beacons of Light website (https://catholicaoc.org/beacons-of-light), saying more details will be available in the coming days.

But the way parishes operate today “is not sustainable,” Schnurr said in his video interview.

Previous attempts have been made to identify and highlight the problem, but without follow-up, he said.

“This one, there has to be a follow-up.”

The model of a parish priest serving a parish is already outdated. Today, pastors sometimes serve two or more parishes. Reverend Satish Joseph, for example, serves as pastor for Immaculate Conception and St. Mary’s parishes in Dayton and St. Helen’s in Riverside. (Joseph declined to comment for this story).

Archdiocesan leaders have been working on the draft plan for about a year, motivated by several specific numbers. Today there are approximately 442,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which has 19 counties, compared to 529,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese in 1970.

Although this is only a 16% drop, it is the number of priests that can be considered the main challenge. A much smaller number of priests are at work.

In 1970, the Archdiocese had 417 active diocesan priests, or nearly 450 available priests in total, serving approximately 259 parishes at the time.

While there are different ways of counting priests, a report from the Archdiocese indicates that around 160 active priests today (in his interview, Schnurr put the number to 150) serving around 208 parishes – a reduction in the number priests around 61%, compared to 51 years ago.

Another intimidating data point: Twenty of 114 (17.5%) pastors are eligible for retirement or face “mandatory” retirement, according to the Archdiocese’s “Current Realities” report, found on the website Web Beacons of Light.

“The point is, we just don’t have enough priests to serve all the parishes,” said Reverend John Civille, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Middletown. “And it’s going to be like that for a while yet. They will therefore have to essentially merge some of these parishes.

“The Archbishop thinks it will resume, but we’ll just wait and see about it,” he added. “But it’s hard to know exactly how to do that. As far as we’re concerned, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

The well-being of priests is at stake, said Schnurr.

“These priests were asked to do more and more,” he said in the video. “If this continues, it is already impacting the health and well-being of our priests, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically. “

“Disposal of all the goods of the parish”

The Archdiocese’s list of “Frequently Asked Questions” addresses the possibility of closed churches with this answer:

“It is expected that over time a parish family will become a canonical parish. With this expectation in mind, it is important to remember that a parish can be made up of a single church or of several churches.

When asked if parishes would close, Schnurr said in the video: “Beacons of Light does not focus on closing parishes at all.”

However, he added, “Over time some parish families may come to the conclusion that we really don’t need all of these campuses. We can accomplish this with fewer campuses – and then there may be the decision to reduce a parish church to the status of an oratory or a chapel.

This decision will be made by the local parishes, and not by the archdiocese, he said.

A family will have a pastor, with the help of parish vicars or associate pastors, Schnurr also said.

Even when new priests are ordained, older priests retire or leave active ministry. Schnurr said priests were invited to become pastors or associate pastors – essentially, administrators, educators, and sometimes spiritual leaders of thousands of families – earlier in their careers.

Sometimes experienced priests can mentor younger priests. But even that becomes difficult, said the archbishop.

“It is no longer possible today,” he said. “As we ordain more, the older priests retire even more quickly. “

Sandra Yokum, a professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton, said she didn’t want to jump to conclusions. But she thinks the archdiocese is trying to respond “to the reality of the situation”. She believes the archdiocesan leaders are also making an effort to be “transparent” about their work.

“I think my feeling is to wait and see how things go,” Yokum said.

She added: “It will be a huge challenge.”

“The movement of people”

It’s more than a story of falling numbers.

There are 1,437 fewer parishes in the United States today than there were in 1971 (up to a total of 16,346), according to data from the Center for Applied Research at Georgetown University in the Apostolate’s blog “1964” in 2019.

But the numbers are not going down everywhere. There are states and regions where the Catholic population is experiencing spectacular growth.

Reverend Tom Gaunt, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), believes it is a matter of population movement.

“People have moved from urban areas to the suburbs, but also from the northeast, the Midwest, to the south and west of the country,” he said in an interview. “So you will see that Cincinnati shows a decline in the number of Catholics year after year over the past two decades. But at the same time, we’re seeing this explosive growth in places like Atlanta or Houston. “

Mark Gray, researcher for CARA, wrote in 2019 about what he called a “tale of two churches”, in which “pastors in different parts of the country tend to worry about different things (keep the lights on vs finding space for more benches and parking spaces.) ”

Gray discovered that Ohio lost 171 Catholic parishes from 1971 to 2019.

The growth of Catholics has been concentrated in the South and the West. CARA found, for example, that Texas added 293 parishes from 1971 to 2019, Florida added 165 parishes during this period, and Arizona and New Mexico added 121.