The Archdiocese of Detroit recently announced an ambitious plan for Families of Parishes, a new reality of parish structures to meet the challenges we will face in the years and decades to come. It is an ambitious project in the midst of incredibly difficult circumstances in our Church and our world. But this announcement should also give us hope for the future of the Catholic Church in southeast Michigan.
As we begin this journey, the first thing we must keep in mind is the missionary nature of the Church. Unleash the Gospel reminded us of this truth almost three years ago and it remains just as true today. Popes have taught this missionary dimension of the Church for centuries, with a renewed vibrancy since the Second Vatican Council more than 50 years ago. St. Pope Paul VI shared this teaching in one of his apostolic letters: “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize.” Therefore, every decision we make must be true to this evangelizing identity.
Every part of the Church — parishes, schools, archdiocesan services, families, individual Catholics — must take up this charge to be first and foremost about evangelization. For our parishes, this means that at their core, they must live and proclaim the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are invitational by their words and actions — by their very structure — to those on the “outside” to come and join the body of Christ.
If we hold fast to this missional reality, we must further ask, “How can we be best suited to live and proclaim this mystery, here and now?” The Letter to the Hebrews teaches us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Heb 13:8) The truths of our Catholic faith are unchanging, just as the person of Jesus Christ is unchanging. Yet, the methods of this proclamation need to be suited to the current circumstances. Missionaries throughout the centuries have done this. From St. Paul speaking to the Athenians about the “unknown God,” to St. Patrick using the shamrock to explain the Trinity, to St. Katherine Drexel sharing her Catholic faith to African Americans and Native Americans through a system of Catholic schools, missionaries both famous and those lost in history have sought ways to share the Catholic faith in the particular setting of their culture.
In the Archdiocese of Detroit, it is an undeniable truth that our circumstances have changed over the past century. Similar to dioceses around the country, the number of priests since the 1950s and 1960s continues to shrink and the number of pastors serving in their 70s and 80s continues to rise. As we celebrate the ordination to the priesthood of five men in the Archdiocese of Detroit, we rejoice that God has called them to this vocation. We pray for more vocations to the ministerial priesthood, begging God to inspire more men to lay down their lives and give themselves wholeheartedly to this mission. But we also realize that our planning must take into account our changing reality.
Therefore, one particular aspect of the missionary conversion we seek to live out must include a plan for providing for the care of our parishes with fewer priests. This plan involves a collaborative approach to parish ministry. Parishes, while still retaining their individual identity, will be grouped into “families” which accommodate the predicted number of priests and better usage of our current and projected resources. A family of parishes will consolidate the administrative burden of parishes so that they will be more ready to inspire, equip and send forth missionary disciples.
My personal hopes for this new reality fall into three categories: those for our whole archdiocese, those for each of our parish families and those for our parishioners.
For the whole archdiocese, I am confident that families of parishes will help us better serve parishes from a “central services” perspective. One small example of how this has worked recently was in securing hand sanitizer for all of our parishes. The archdiocese was able to work with a supplier to quickly obtain low-cost, high-quality sanitizer for parishes to assist them in reopening public Masses. There are countless ways our close collaboration can lead to be better economies of scale for essential purchases for our parishes, making the sacrificial gifts of parishioners go farther.
This scaled approach to support of parishes transcends the purchasing of supplies. It also allows us to create greater specialization for the needs of our parish families. Whether this is support for youth ministers, parish musician or marriage preparation coordinators, greater collaboration allows us to serve these individuals more effectively and efficiently. It allows our local Church to offer higher-quality training — both for the initial formation of lay ecclesial ministers and for their continued education — so that they can build up bands of joyful missionary disciples.
For our parishes, being part of a family will allow staffs to collaborate with each other more easily. Faith formation programs and adult education will have more resources when united. This sharing of resources will allow us also to be more intentional about our missionary identity. Especially since Synod 16, parishes have talked about how to be “mission-oriented” rather than preoccupied with the need to care for those already in the fold. By adopting a family model, parishes will be able to dedicate financial resources, dedicated staff people, and programming methods for outreach. This can run the gamut from testimony training, to door-to-door evangelization, to invitational gatherings to bring the good news of the Catholic Church to those who do not know Jesus.
The family model also allows parishes to share facilities, capitalizing on the space they have for evangelization, catechesis and pastoral care. Parishes that struggle to fill timeslots for Eucharistic Adoration can collaborate with the other parishes in their family to have dedicated time to pray before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Parishes that have thriving Christian service programs, including food pantries, can work with other parishes in their family to meet the physical needs of those in the wider community.
Parishes with schools can now see a broader sharing in this crucial mission — Archbishop Vigneron has called Catholic schools an apostolate of the whole Archdiocese of Detroit — of helping families experience an academically excellent, proudly Catholic and affordable education. The myriad ways parishes will benefit from the family model give me great hope for the Church in southeast Michigan.
Finally, parishes uniting in families will benefit the faithful in the Archdiocese of Detroit. A number of our parishes are smaller than they were just five or ten years ago. Through this collaboration, families of parishes can help individuals and families receive the pastoral care they need from the Church. Sacramental ministry, hearing the word of God, growing in one’s faith and of course active participation in the holy sacrifice of the Mass will be arranged in ways that will better serve parishioners. As we see people travel more frequently for shopping, dining out or gathering with friends, we know that people are more willing to travel between parish sites to receive excellent catechesis and sacramental care.
No less important, this arrangement of parishes into families will allow us as a Church to be more mission oriented. Individuals and families will have more opportunities to be trained and put into practice what it means to be a missionary disciple. Parish coordination will bring more missionary disciples together and allow them to be mutually encouraged, grow in the virtues needed for the work of evangelization and challenge each other to take up the call of Synod 16. We know that missionary discipleship is contagious and spreads when the joy of the Gospel is shared by those on fire with the Holy Spirit. Bringing together more missionary disciples will enable us to increase our evangelizing power exponentially.
There are many questions still be answered about Families of Parishes. We are embarking on an adventure and, like any adventure, the future is unknown and uncertain. We do know that this will require us to adapt to change, possess humility and learn new skills to live our reality as a Church. When St. John Paul II articulated the New Evangelization, he called for new ardor, new expressions and new methods. Creating Families of Parishes is one of the new methods by which we will evangelize in the Archdiocese of Detroit. As we seek to live this new method, we reaffirm our commitment to being a missionary archdiocese, moving forward — responsibly but boldly — to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord to everyone in southeast Michigan.