Town meetings in Cranberry Country

Father John Sheridan is Pastor of the Cranberry Catholic Collaborative made up of the faith communities of Sacred Heart, Middleborough, Sts. Martha and Mary, Lakeville, and St. Rose of Lima, Rochester. His 775-plus friends on Facebook, know about the good things happening in cranberry country; Father Sheridan does a great job of chronicling and spreading the good news. Looking beyond the photos of beautiful sunrises and sunsets, the collaborative Christmas tree lighting ceremony, and the successful collaborative Lenten mission, perhaps the time has come to ask: How is day to day life in cranberry country? A conversation with Father Sheridan last week provided some answers.

Some time ago, Father Sheridan announced to parishioners in the collaborative that over the course of several weeks he would host town meetings in each location, after each weekend Mass. The response to this invitation was excellent. After the final blessing and hymn at each church, at each Mass, most people remained in place to participate in the meeting and hear from the pastor and members of the community. In publicizing the meetings, Father Sheridan encouraged parishioners to bring their questions and concerns. He, in turn, shared his questions and concerns, and began each meeting with a five minute "State of the Family (Collaborative) Address." These introductory remarks included updates about buildings and facilities and the good news that Mass attendance and offertory collections are strong. Pastoral associate Holly Clark, also present at each gathering, reported on ministries and the ongoing development of the collaborative website.

As with most parishes and collaboratives, facilities and budgets can be a source of worry. The cost of installing a needed elevator and taking down a barn in Lakeville are financial challenges. The sign in front of Sts. Martha and Mary Church is, "hard to read and easy to miss." There are plans afoot to install a new LED sign that will have information about the Sts. Martha and Mary community, as well as news about the collaborative. Father Sheridan listed his five priorities for their facilities: buildings should be welcoming, bright, clean, accessible, and have a good sound system. Parishioners listened, questioned, and made suggestions. One suggestion was implemented almost immediately. The St. Rose of Lima community wanted the opportunity for a weekday Mass in Rochester, and so Mass will be offered on Thursday mornings to see if it is feasible to make this a fixed part of the Mass schedule. In meeting after meeting, one of the most hopeful questions Father Sheridan was asked surprised him and also gave him great joy: "How long will you be here?" Acknowledging that there are very few certainties in life, he reported that his last assignment lasted almost seven years.

Parishioners seem grateful for what has been accomplished over these past months and Father Sheridan expressed his deep appreciation for the adjustments that the three communities have made since the Collaborative began in June 2013. Speaking about the beauty of our Catholic faith, Father Sheridan reminded parishioners, "We are three in one, how Catholic can you get?"

It is a balancing act to focus on three faith communities each with specific needs and gifts, while simultaneously considering the Collaborative as a whole. Father Sheridan encouraged parishioners to, "look at what's in front of us -- what's ahead of us." He went on to say, "In times of transition, we need to think bigger, there's more here than we know." The collaborative will continue to build community, and they will continue to provide opportunities to celebrate who they are and what they are doing. Father Sheridan compares operating as a Collaborative to being in a living laboratory.

In the interview for this article, Father Sheridan was asked about the energy and effort that it takes to pastor a collaborative of three faith communities in three different towns. He quoted President Harry Truman's answer to a somewhat similar question. Truman observed, "Being president is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep riding or be swallowed." Father Sheridan attests that the pastor of a Collaborative has to stay on top of things and just keep riding -- or be swallowed!

Father Sheridan ended the Town Meetings on an optimistic note with references to the writings, addresses, and example of Pope Francis, and Cardinal O'Malley's vision of making parishes of the archdiocese vibrant, stable, and effective centers of evangelization. Father Sheridan told his parishioners, "What's happening here [Cranberry Catholic Collaborative] ... we are leading the way and we're learning. I am determined to make the most of this opportunity ... and I want you to be along with me."

Susan Abbott is Coordinator of Parish Outreach for the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Pastoral Planning.