Father Woods expressed his gratitude at the turnout as, "a testament to your faith." He said that the parishes are in a "time of transition." There are choices to make; "not to decide is to decide."
In June, Father Walter Woods, pastor of the Apple Valley Collaborative (St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Acton and St. Isidore in Stow) attended the Renovation Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia with some members of his staff. It was a transformative experience. Returning home, Father Woods planned a Sept. 14 meeting for all parishioners, writing via parish bulletins and websites, "Our two parishes are at a turning point. The recently-approved pastoral plan calls us to take both parishes in a new direction, and do it with clear priorities and a redoubled commitment to the Lord and his mission... there is a lot more at issue than a single document can convey... I owe it to you to let you know how I understand the meaning, the temptations, the grace, and the call of this moment."
Sept. 14 came -- and so did the parishioners -- young, old, male and female. St. Isidore Church, with a capacity of about 350, was just about full. Father Woods expressed his gratitude at the turnout as, "a testament to your faith." He said that the parishes are in a "time of transition." There are choices to make; "not to decide is to decide." Throughout the presentation, Father Woods spoke about "reorienting ourselves from maintenance to mission." He described his three-fold investment: "I take pastor responsibility seriously, I am a member of this community, and I am a disciple, too."
Addressing declining attendance he said, "Our elders are moving away and passing away, and that's expected. Too many teens are walking away and too many parents are fading away. Our responses to date: just hang on and pray for better times. Do better on what we're already doing." He continued to describe today's reality, "Our best efforts over many years have not turned it around. Society and culture have changed. Cultural Catholicism is gone and isn't coming back. Society and culture doesn't support faith and worship."
Father Woods asked, "Why are we doing what we're doing when outcomes are disappointing?" And then, "Why does a parish exist? One answer: to serve its parishioners." This answer means that "decisions are made to keep parishioners happy, i.e. Mass schedules and religious ed. People expect parishes to respond to their needs and convenience. Hence, parish shopping. The Serve-the-Parishioners View of parish ministry has governed our expectations and decisions on budgeting, worship, programs, staffing, schedules, the use of our buildings, the bulletin, the website -- Everything!"
Serve-the-Parishioners view of parish ministry has many important implications and consequences, but Father Woods highlighted this: it "entails no overall purpose -- it depends on what people want. Without a common purpose that is substantive, shared, public, and appropriate, no organization can be healthy or effective. The name for all this is maintenance." He continued, "There is another way. Why does a parish exist? To serve the mission of Jesus Christ. If so, then every aspect must be mission oriented and mission driven. We can remain maintenance oriented or mission oriented. Failure to decide is to remain maintenance oriented.
This approach is known, understood, and does good things. It honors people's expectations; no push-back. (It) avoids the stress, anxiety, and dislocation that change brings. Routine, habits and personal piety remain undisturbed." Father Woods appreciates "the cogency and force of these considerations." But, he said, "if we keep doing what we're doing, we'll continue the decline." He described the other way. We can "seize the moment -- the Kairos moment -- a heaven sent opportunity... to embrace our mission." The Kairos moment calls us to, "renew parish life and ministry, respond to our own call, recommit ourselves to Jesus Christ. It's time to embrace our mission. It's a matter of faithfulness. That's what I'm going to do. That's what I invite you to do."
Father Woods explained "This is our Mission: Know the Lord Jesus...This knowing is personal and charged with love. This is where it starts -- the only place it can start. Live his life in community. Make disciples for the Lord."
He continued, "Where do we go from here? Reorienting our parishes will take time--lots of time. We have a mission and support, but no user's manual. There will be missteps and mistakes. We will be committed, patient, always moving ahead."
Father Woods closed by reviewing the Purpose, Values, and Vision of their Local Pastoral Plan, "We will take it seriously and implement it as best we can, always exercising good judgment. May we be committed, patient, and go forth together and in charity." Amen!
Susan Abbott is the former Coordinator of Parish Outreach for the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Pastoral Planning.
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