By Jay Nies
Bishop John R. Gaydos’ renewed pastoral plan for the diocese has tapped into a wellspring of creativity and collaboration in and among parishes and the Chancery staff.
This is especially true with the first three priorities in the plan: supporting family life, promoting knowledge and understanding of the faith among people of all ages, and building a culture of outreach and welcome.
The bishop is confident the local Church will devote the same level of energy and openness to helping him with the fourth priority: planning for the reality of fewer priests in staffing parishes.
“Christ is always building up His Church, specifically in the sacraments and the preaching of His Holy Word,” said Bishop Gaydos. “As in ages past, we face a unique challenge of carrying-out our sacramental, Eucharistic mission within the reality of changing demographics and a limited number of priests.”
In the past 10 years, the number of active diocesan priests of the Jefferson City diocese has gone from 65 to 61.
Of those, 17 are or will be 75 or older within five years.
Priests are eligible to retire at 70, although most continue serving beyond that age. Church law requires every pastor to submit his resignation at age 75. The bishop can allow him to continue serving if the priest wishes to do so.
Priests of the Dominican order staff St. Thomas More Newman Center parish in Columbia. A priest of the Missionary Society of the Most Precious Blood is pastor of the Sedalia and Bahner parishes, and a Redemptorist priest is canonical administrator of the Cuba, Bourbon and Steelville parishes.
All three of those religious orders are actively discerning how to carry- out their mission with fewer priests.
Over the past five years, Bishop Gaydos has welcomed 18 priests from other countries to minister temporarily in this diocese. Of those, 14 are currently serving here, as is a priest of the St. Louis Archdiocese.
This has helped broaden the worldview of many Catholics while allowing Mass to be offered each Sunday in many parishes with hope that God would call more priests from among the faithful to serve in this diocese.
“However, we have not in five years been able to call forth a sufficient number of homegrown seminarians, and our international priests will eventually be called back to serve in their home dioceses,” said Father Joseph S. Corel, vicar general for the diocese and pastor of St. Andrew parish in Holts Summit.
Since 2007, 12 men have answered the call to Priesthood for this diocese.
Rev. Mr. Paul Clark hopes to be ordained a priest this Spring, leaving six other men in priestly formation for this diocese.
Of those, two are currently in their second of four years of theology studies; two are in their first year of theology studies; one is in his third year of college; and another is in his first year of college.
“While we celebrate the number of priests we’ve ordained these past few years, we realize that there aren’t currently enough men in formation to cover the number of priests who will be retiring in the coming years,” Fr. Corel said.
That will leave the remaining priests traveling farther and farther to minister in the 95 parishes and 15 missions within the 22,000-square-mile expanse of this diocese.
“Obviously, this is not sustainable,” Fr. Corel said.
He added that the diocese is not currently accepting new applications for international priests to serve here due to tightening immigration requirements.
Bishop Gaydos promulgated his 2010 pastoral plan, “Christ’s Call, Our Response,” after two years of consultation from Catholics involved in parishes and ministry throughout the diocese.
In 2015, he approved an updated version of the plan, recommitting the bulk of the diocese’s efforts toward the same four pastoral priorities, after another round of extensive consultation led by a pastoral consultant, Sister Kate DuVal of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
The pastoral plan calls for a comprehensive study to be undertaken, “including consultation with laity, regarding parish viability, consolidation, clustering, creation of new parishes, and staffing by combinations of clergy and lay ministers appropriate to each parish.”
Based on that information and other factors, a plan of action will be developed and implemented.
Working through the diocesan Presbyteral Council, Bishop Gaydos is asking all parishes to assess their strengths as well as areas where they could use assistance from the Pastoral Center staff.
That information will be shared with the diocesan Priests Personnel Board, which advises the bishop on assigning priests to parishes and other ministries.
The focus will be on enhanced cooperation and collaboration among neighboring parishes, especially those that are to be served by one priest.
“It’s good for us to get to know people in neighboring parishes better,” said Fr. Corel.
Having served as pastor of more than one parish in the past, Fr. Corel knows firsthand how people in neighboring parishes can work together.
He cited the way several parishes often work together to send their children to Catholic schools in neighboring communities.
More recently, the parishes in neighboring St. Martins and Russellville have combined their youth-ministry programs, and several Osage County parishes are working to do likewise.
Four parishes near the Lake of the Ozarks are working more closely together to meet the needs of the growing Hispanic population there.
Many parishes also work together on preparing young people for the sacrament of confirmation and helping adults prepare for initiation into the Church.
“Parishioners need to be thinking how they can work with people in neighboring parishes,” said Fr. Corel. “We’re all members of the same Church. So don’t think you have to go alone.”
At the same time, Bishop Gaydos is renewing his request for prayers for openness and enlightenment for the whole local Church throughout this process, and for the Lord of the Harvest to summon more priests into His harvest.