Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Evolution of a Spiritual Renewal

Bishop Clark recently announced a diocesan-wide Time of Renewal. This was the second public announcement. The first took place some 19 months ago.

The First Announcement

In a June 4, 2006 homily Fr. Richard Shatzel, then pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Honeoye, announced that a diocesan-wide spiritual renewal was in the offing. It was to begin in 2007 and run for 3 years. The first year was to focus on clergy and pastoral staff, the second year on the laity and the third year was to involve outreach “to the world.”

Holding up copies of Go And Make Disciples and From Maintenance to Mission, Fr. Shatzel said that the focus of the renewal was to be on evangelization. The co-chairs were to be Fr. Doug Della Pietra and Ms. Shannon Loughlin.

About a year later, with the diocese still silent on the topic of a renewal, Fr. Shatzel apologized to his parishioners for what he termed a premature announcement. He said that the renewal was still in the works, but that various aspects of it had been “held up in committee.”

The Second Announcement

The second (and official) announcement came on the first weekend of Advent 2007 when a letter from Bishop Clark was read at all Masses. The bishop said that the diocese would be entering into “a time of renewal” beginning in Lent 2008.

The renewal is to be co-chaired by Fr. Peter Clifford and Ms. Maribeth Mancini and is to “feature an ‘electronic’ inspirational retreat available on DVD and led by Bishop Clark; ceremonies to bless people’s personal Bibles; programs to deepen study of Scripture; programs and resources to help people determine the particular gifts God has given them; and ways to fully practice the biblical principles of Stewardship as a way of life.”

What Happened "In Committee"?

It’s pretty clear that the renewal we are about to receive bears little resemblance to the one first announced in 2006.

First, both of the original co-chairs are no longer in the picture. While it was probably necessary to find a substitute for Doug Della Pietra, as he no longer seems to be a diocesan employee or even an active priest (see here), the reasons for replacing Ms. Loughlin with Ms. Mancini are less clear.

Second, the original, hierarchical implementation has given way to a we’re-all-in-this-together approach. The program as first announced seemed to focus first on our pastoral leaders so that they could then lead us, the laity, in our own renewal, after which all of us would be prepared to carry the gospel message out into the wider world. Now we are all called to enter into “a personal relationship with Jesus, through prayer and Scripture,.” which isn't a bad thing. However, it now seems that the wider world will just have to fend for itself.

Third, Go and Make Disciples and From Maintenance to Mission have given way to an “inspirational” retreat on DVD. I find this unfortunate, as both these works compel us, both individually and corporately, to look deeply inside ourselves and identify what should not be there as well as what that which should be there that needs strengthening. I suppose I could hope for something similar from the bishop's DVD, but I’m not holding my breath.

Finally, evangelization has given way to stewardship. Authentic evangelization requires a solid grounding in the truths of the faith on the part of the evangelizers and the renewal as originally conceived should have provided for that. And so this switch in emphasis represents a missed opportunity to rectify some of the effects of the abysmal catechesis that has been standard fare in DOR for far too many years. It would be awfully easy to be cynical about the reasons behind the new emphasis on stewardship, but I'll simply express my opinion that it is a poor substitute for the catechesis evangelization requires.

In closing I present a quote from the Catechism that seems to have escaped the notice of our bishop and his renewal committee:

Periods of renewal in the Church are also intense moments of catechesis. In the great era of the Fathers of the Church, saintly bishops devoted an important part of their ministry to catechesis. St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, and many other Fathers wrote catechetical works that remain models for us” (CCC #8, emphasis added).

Friday, January 25, 2008

Diocese: Parents should have seen it coming!

In a January 23rd interview with Nikki Rudd of WHEC-TV, the diocesan Vicar General seemed to imply that parents have only themselves to blame if they didn’t realize their schools were in danger of closing. Fr. Joseph Hart said,

“We’ve lost 30, 40% of the school population. Parents certainly knew that. You certainly know if you had 404 students in 2000 and you’ve only got 100 students now, something is going to have to give.”

And so, parents, stop blaming the Diocese of Rochester for not giving you any warning. And stop complaining about the Monroe County Catholic School System not sharing enrollment and financial data. It's really your fault. You should have been smart enough to figure it all out for yourselves.

See the full interview here. Click on “Watch all of Nikki's interview with Diocese officials” at the end of the text.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

What I Learned at St. Bernard's

In the summer of 2006 I attended a 5 hour mini-course at the new St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. It was called “Catholic Worldviews – Traditional vs. Progressive” and was taught by Deacon Tom Driscoll, currently Pastoral Associate at St. John’s in Spencerport.

I was drawn to the course primarily by its title. The liberal-versus- conservative divide in the Church is of great interest to me. Being on the conservative side of that divide, I am always interested in learning how the other side manages to get its thinking - and its theology - as confused as it does.

Another draw was the presenter. I had heard a lot of good things about Deacon Tom’s teaching style and so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be bored out of my skull.

Most of my classmates were women and most of them were in the process of getting either a degree or a certification that would let them work at some pastoral level in the diocese. Deacon Tom already knew many of them from other courses he had taught and it became clear early on that I was just about the only representative of the conservative Catholic viewpoint in the room.

I have to admit that the deacon did do a fairly decent job of presenting a balanced view of the topic, although his liberal leanings did get the better of him a couple of times. Once he decried the fact that many conservatives want to strip Fr. Charles Curran of what the deacon called his “theological driver’s license.” Another time he warned the class that Bishop Clark will have to step down no later than 2012 and that many of his “reforms” might be threatened by his successor.

But the most important thing I took away from that course was Deacon Tom’s statement to the class that his course was designed, in part, to help all those pastoral wannabes learn how to effectively deal with comments and criticisms from conservative Catholics like me. In other words, how to tell me to get lost, but in a very kind, pastoral way.

What an eye-opener!

13 Schools Are Closing

Bishop Clark dropped his bombshell yesterday. 13 Monroe County Catholic schools are to close. Most of them are on the west side of the county, while most of the bishop's task force seems to be from the east side. Must be some sort of coincidence.

Anyway, there is a rather lively discussion of the situation currently taking place on the Democrat and Chronicle website. As I write this there are already some 110 comments posted, about 8 pages worth.

One common complaint is the lack of any hard data from the diocese. Most folks would like to see the financial data that was given to the task force, but one or two mentioned interest in enrollment information. I'm not in a position to do anything about the former, but I can do something about the latter.

I have a friend who is a Catholic school teacher. A couple of years ago he/she gave me a printout of a spreadsheet that was handed out at a faculty meeting. The printout listed Monroe County Catholic School enrollment data for each school for all academic years from 1995-95 through 2005-06. The printout is not marked "Confidential" or anything similar and my friend told me that nothing was said at the faculty meeting about it being privileged information.

I have just finished scanning the printout and it appears below. Perhaps the diocese could supply the data for the last 3 academic years and then we would all be up to date.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

DOR Superintendent of Schools Resigns

14 Schools to Close?

On Sunday, January 6 the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported that Sr. Elaine Poitras, the Diocese of Rochester’s superintendent of schools, had resigned effective immediately. A DOR spokesman said that the resignation was for “personal reasons.”

Far be it from me to question the veracity of the diocesan spokesman but I have to wonder if Sr. Elaine’s resignation might also have had something to do with a report due out any day now from the group of 23 individuals appointed by Bishop Clark a few months back “to explore ways we can preserve our long tradition of providing Catholic School education in the Diocese of Rochester.”

Rumor has it that the task force will recommend the closure of 14 of our current 24 schools, accompanied by the transfer of the students currently in those schools to the 10 buildings remaining open. The underlying idea would seem to be the minimizing of costs by the maximizing of building and staff utilization.

Given the fact that the bishop’s task force is heavily loaded with businesspeople, this recommendation would come as no surprise. In fact, the bishop seemed to go out of his way to avoid appointing any building administrators, teachers or parents to his task force, presumably to keep any emotional content out of the cold, hard, dollar-and-cents deliberations he was after.

The problem with that approach is that the school administrators, teachers and especially the parents are primary stakeholders in the DOR school system. History has shown time and again that when one excludes primary stakeholders from the decision-making process, disaster usually follows. It certainly did during the last round of school closings, when just 60% or so of the students in the affected buildings actually showed up at what were supposed to be their new schools the following fall.

But who knows, the bishop just might get lucky in spite of himself. I’m sure he’s praying. I know I am.

Monday, January 7, 2008

DOR Mass Attendance in Free Fall

[This is an update of a 2 year-old post to my former blog, "A Voice In The Wilderness."]


During the last seven years 2 Catholics out of every 9 in the Diocese of Rochester have stopped attending weekend Mass. One would think this would be a cause of great concern to diocesan officials. If so, they are hiding their concern well.

The Numbers

Although some parishes began earlier, the diocese as a whole first began keeping an accurate tally of those attending weekend Mass in 2000. The methodology is simple: During each weekend in October each parish counts the people at every liturgy and then averages the numbers, thus coming up with its own Average October Attendance (AOA) figure. These AOAs are forwarded to the diocese, which adds them up.

Thus, for 2000 the diocesan-wide AOA was 108,000, and it was 110,000 for 2001, 103,000 for 2002, 98,000 for 2003, 95,000 for 2004, 91,000 for 2005, 87,000 for 2006 and 84,000 for 2007.

Is There a Trend Here?

These numbers are almost impossible to interpret by themselves, but once they are plotted on a graph it can be readily seen that the diocese has been experiencing a steady, year-over-year decline in Mass attendance during at least the last 7 years.

The actual rate of decline varies from 3.94% per year for the numbers as given above, to 3.64% per year when the 2001 number is adjusted to account for the temporary increase in church attendance that was observed nationwide immediately after the tragic events of September 11.

Official Reaction Number 1

When the first 6 years of this data was presented to the former diocesan Director of Pastoral Planning a couple of years ago, his response was that the diocese was experiencing the effects of the generational shift that is affecting the entire American Church. (The “generational shift” is the theory whereby younger Catholics – who tend to attend Mass less frequently than their elders – are slowly replacing those older Catholics in the pews, thus bringing down the averages. In other words - so the theory goes - the Church isn't really losing any members; it's just that the members we have are coming to Mass less frequently.)

While there is certainly some truth to this, national polling data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and others indicates that this effect should be just under 0.5% per year. DOR’s rate of decline, however, is some 7 to 8 times higher than what the generational shift alone would predict.

Official Reaction Number 2

When presented with the same data the diocesan Vicar General attributed much of the decline in Mass attendance to the “economic hardship” and “dramatic de-population” experienced by the 12 counties that comprise the diocese. “Our Catholic people have moved to Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas, Phoenix, and San Diego, where Catholic churches are overflowing,” he wrote in a recent letter.

At first glance this looks pretty convincing: there is little doubt that some folks have left the area due to economic conditions. However, unless the US Census Bureau has been making up its numbers out of whole cloth, there simply has been no de-population – “dramatic” or otherwise – in the Diocese of Rochester. In fact, from July 1, 2000 to July 1, 2006 the 12 counties that comprise DOR actually experienced a net increase in population! Although small (1.5%), this increase stands in stark contrast to the 19.4% decrease in Mass attendance DOR experienced during almost exactly the same time period.

To be totally fair, the Vicar General did write that there were other “good reasons for the decline in Church attendance, spiritual reasons that we can do something about.” He was not specific as to the exact nature of these spiritual reasons, but he did express the hope that the multi-year spiritual renewal process soon to be implemented by the diocese will “reverse a discouraging trend and that soon, our churches will be full again.”

My Reaction to the Official Reactions

Neither the former Director of Pastoral Planning nor the Vicar General are dumb – far from it! But one does have to wonder just what leads two otherwise intelligent men to be so ready to latch on to such demonstrably false explanations for the causes underlying our problem. Both of these men seem all too willing to put much, if not all, of the blame on circumstances that are essentially beyond our control, rather than to even entertain the possibility that our own actions, inactions, policies, and/or procedures just might be playing a significant role here.

My Advice to the Diocese

Before one can solve any problem one needs to understand the exact nature of that problem. In our case we have some 24,000 Catholics who have stopped attending Mass within the last seven years. Given the software that each parish in the diocese is required to use to track its members, it should not be very difficult to identify most of these people. The diocese could then select a statistically significant random sample of these 24,000 and simply ask them why we no longer see them at Mass.

We may not like some of the answers we are likely to get, and we may not be able to do anything about some of the problems some folks may have with the Church. But what we will have is a valid reality check. At that point - and only at that point – will we be able to develop strategies that have a realistic chance of effectively countering our continuing decline in attendance.

Let me be clear that I am not against the diocesan-wide spiritual renewal. In fact, I can make a case that it is long overdue and I hope and pray that great things will come of it. But along with that renewal I believe the Holy Spirit would also expect us to make the effort to understand the exact nature of our attendance problem so that he can more easily lead us to its solutions.