Sunday, August 25, 2013

Announcement: St André Bessette Parish

At the end of June, an important anniversary passed with little fanfare: ten years since the start of the Malone Catholic Parishes.  I’m sure many of you remember well all that it took to get to that day.  It was a big deal!  Given longstanding parish rivalries, many wondered if it could be done…and we’ve more than proven that indeed it could be.

The decision to bring the four Catholic parishes in and around Malone under the care of one pastor was motivated—by and large—by the declining number of priests.  Ten years later, that trend has not changed.  A recent notice from the diocesan offices pointed out that we currently have 62 active pastors serving 99 parishes.  The projection?  Within five years, we’ll be down to 52 pastors—maybe less.

But there’s another reality with which the Church in the North Country is dealing: not only do we have fewer active priests, but we also have fewer active Catholics.  Occasional headcounts at Sunday Mass show that we now have 700 fewer people coming to Mass in Malone each week than we did ten years ago.  The equivalent of an entire moderately sized parish has disappeared from our pews!  A survey taken just over two years ago also revealed that, among those now coming to Mass in our parishes, almost half are 65 years old or older.

Jesus assures us that a good shepherd, having 100 sheep, would leave the 99 to go out after just one that strays.  Do the math, and in the case of our own flock of a hundred we’ve actually got about 42 that have wandered from the fold.  What do we do?

For the three years that I have been privileged to be your pastor, looking at the declining number of priests and of people, and trying to balance shaky budgets while maintaining all of our many aging facilities, it’s become quite clear to me: we simply cannot go on like this.  If we don’t make some changes soon, then ten years from now…well…there won’t be much left to worry about.

Since the spring of 2011, I have been in conversation, first with our staff and Pastoral Council, and then with Bishop LaValley, about what needs to be done.  We have spent much time studying, meeting, consulting experts, and praying.  When I presented our annual parish reports last fall, I mentioned this ongoing dialogue to you.

On June 10, the Pastoral Council came to a unanimous conclusion: that the time has come to make a change, and a significant one.  And so we petitioned Bishop LaValley to begin the process to take our four separate parishes and form them into a single new one.  Bishop agreed with our request, and a timeline has been set to accomplish this goal by July 1, 2014.

What does that mean?  I think it best to begin with a few things it does not mean.  It does not mean that any of our churches are closing—at least, not at this time.  (Once you have a chance, however, to examine the numbers with which I wrestle every day, you’ll see that we must soon enough explore this possibility.)  It does not mean that we’re about to begin building a new church.  It also does not mean that any of our churches will be changing their names.  Remember (and this is so very important) that a parish is made up of the people, not the buildings in which the people gather.  Rest assured as well that our five parish cemeteries will remain in operation.

Some of you are no doubt thinking, “Isn’t this what happened ten years ago?”  Actually, no, it did not.  In 2003, we began sharing a staff and services, coordinating our schedules and many programs, but we didn’t formally unite in any way.  If you need evidence, just look in the collection basket as it goes by and see that the envelopes are still four different colors.  In many ways, we act as if we’re one…but in reality, we’re still four distinct institutions.  Trying to be four and one at the same time is pretty clumsy.  Let me be honest: it’s actually getting to be an administrative nightmare.  On a small scale, it sometimes means cutting four checks to pay one bill.  In the bigger picture, it means our focus is always divided and, as a result, we are not nearly as effective as we could and should be.  Once again: in just ten years, 42% of the flock has gone missing!  And though I know I ought to be out there, beating the bushes with you to find these lost sheep and bring them home, I instead find myself spending most of my time repairing the same old fences that surround four increasingly empty pastures.

Now, this is not at all to say that these past ten years as Malone Catholic Parishes have been a waste of time.  Far from it!  So much has been accomplished about which we can rightly be proud.  This decade of cooperation has shown us what we can do when we combine our efforts and energy, instead of dividing them along old parish and neighborhood boundaries.  Malone Catholic Parishes was a crucial step…but it was only a step.

What I am announcing today is only a beginning, too.  Next July 1st will not be an end point, but a fresh start: a new opportunity, and one ripe with potential.  While times are tough, this is not a move made out of desperation.  It is, though, an acknowledgment that the status quo isn’t holding.  Any attempt to just keep hanging on as if nothing will ever change only ignores how much has already changed.  I don’t think anyone here in this church today wants to see us lose any more ground.  Much like a wise gardener prunes a tree in order for it to bear more good fruit, so the purpose of forming one new parish out of four is renewal and revitalization.  We do this, not because we’re resigned to keep on shrinking, but because we have every intention of starting to grow again.

The next ten months will involve a lot of paperwork, satisfying the obligations of both canon and civil law.  That will be handled by the professionals—behind the scenes, if you will.  The work which is much more crucial—and which will be much more visible—is that of forming a new, common identity.  Our parishes all have distinct and proud histories.  (Sometimes, you might say, a bit too distinct!)  But what I already notice more and more is that many of our parishioners have “dual citizenship,” as I call it:  they officially belong to one parish, but they usually go to Mass in another.  As if that isn’t complicated enough, imagine what it’s like to be a Catholic family just moving into town.  Which parish should they join?

Central to forging a new and common identity for this one new parish is a new patron saint: a “holy mascot,” of sorts, around whom we can all rally; someone whose example of a holy life speaks to us and to our neighbors about what it means to be a Catholic disciple of Jesus Christ in our own time and place.

I’m extremely happy to announce that Bishop LaValley has agreed that the new parish be named for Saint André Bessette, or “Brother André,” as he’s better known to most of us.  This humble man, whose life was marked by so many miracles, visited our community on numerous occasions.  In fact, he still has relatives here and many local families have personal stories or tangible mementos from when he came to town.  Saint André also has spiritual ties with each of our current parishes.  His work as a brother began at Notre Dame College in Montréal.  From there, he went on to build his famous Oratory in honor of Saint Joseph.  His religious community was that of the Holy Cross—the true Cross having been recovered in Jerusalem by none other than Saint Helen.  And, while weak and ill himself, his constant concern was for children, the sick, and the poor—much as it was for Saint John Bosco.

If there’s anybody who can help bring us closer together and closer to Christ, it’s Brother André!  The saint started out as the doorkeeper of the school to which he was assigned.  “When I first came to the college,” he used to joke, “the superiors showed me the door…and I remained there for 40 years!”  As one of God’s gatekeepers, Saint André Bessette has guided many along the narrow way that leads to the Kingdom.  Without a doubt, he will open many doors for us!

As I said: this is just the beginning.  It’s a very exciting one!  And every one of you has an essential part to play in its success.

In the next couple of days, our registered parishioners should all receive a mailing, which will include what I’m now sharing with you along with two pages full of facts and figures that back up the need to make this bold change.  If you are not on our mailing list, a few copies will be available after this Mass.  Also available after Mass will be a few representatives from our Pastoral Council, with whom you can speak, if you wish.  [I, unfortunately, won’t be able to stay to talk things over with you.  That’s one of the big weaknesses in our current arrangement: in order for me to make this announcement to everyone this weekend, I had to bring in another priest…and then drive like mad from church to church to church.]

We will also be holding a listening session in just over a month’s time.  The Pastoral Council and I want and need to hear from you: your concerns about this change, but also your hopes and dreams for the future of our new parish.  That will take place on Monday, September 30, at 7:00pm in the parish hall at Saint John Bosco.  I do hope many of you will attend.

Brother André—like his beloved Saint Joseph—was a master builder.  His dream for the Oratory seemed rather impossible.  But he knew, as do all the saints, that faith moves mountains, and on a mountaintop—despite huge obstacles—a humble wooden chapel grew into a magnificent basilica.  “Put yourself in God’s hands,” Brother André would say with confidence; “he abandons no one.”

What God did through Brother André in Montréal, he can—and will—do again here in Malone, building up his Church: not stone by stone, but soul by soul.  On the sturdy foundations laid by our generous and faith-filled ancestors, let us give ourselves with joy to this historic endeavor: raising this new parish for the new evangelization of our community and for the glory of God.

Saint André Bessette, pray for us!


kvb - K. Virginia Bond said...

Very well done Father Joe! Please know that the United Methodist faith community will be praying for you, your fellow priests, sisters and the congregants in the newly named parish. God's many blessings as you step out in faith.

Anne said...

What a thorough, thoughtful description of what seems like a complex decision. Thank you. I echo Virginia's support in prayer of our brothers and sisters. We'll be lifting you up during this process and asking God's grace as you work out the details.

Anne Werley Smallman
(on behalf of your Protestant neighbors at First Congregational)

Fr. Joe said...

So good to hear from our neighbors! Many, many thanks for the support of your prayers.