Being a ‘church living in the midst’ of her people

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight

As my two-year anniversary as your bishop draws near, I find myself grateful every day for the opportunity to be the shepherd for God’s people here in central and northern Missouri. Your dedication to living as disciples of Christ has been edifying and consoling to me!

At the same time, I read these sentences from Pope Francis’ exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), and I ask, have we fulfilled this vision?

“The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach” (No. 28).

While much good work is happening, we must be responsible stewards and consider what else needs to be done. There are some indicators to suggest we can do more:

  • Sacramental practice in our diocese has declined in the past 20 years, most precipitously in weekly Mass attendance. Since 2001, we have seen a 29% decline in Mass attendance, despite our general Catholic population remaining relatively flat.
  • The social health index of our communities points to many unmet needs in our communities: single parent families; new arrivals, including refugees fleeing persecution; the workers in our prisons, the incarcerated and their families; the rise in suicides and bankruptcies for farmers.
  • There is an unprecedented rise in the number of young people (and even the not-so-young) who claim no affinity to any organized religion.
  • Our Church is often characterized as inward-focused, irrelevant and staid, and/or racked by abusive leaders and corruption.

Allowing the status quo to continue not only means we could be responsible for the demise of our Church, but also that we are refusing to embrace our baptismal call to be salt of the earth, a light to the world!

Following up on our Advent series, “A Steward’s Way,” I am inviting every parish and every Catholic in our diocese to join in a pastoral planning process, “Better Together.” By breaking open the Church’s teachings, especially those of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Francis, we want each parish in the Diocese to be known as a place of charity and mercy, accomplished by clergy and laity working together, and by being grounded in a spirituality of stewardship.

What does that mean, on a concrete level?

In the weeks leading up to Lent, I am meeting with our pastors and parish council presidents, along with other parish representatives. We’ll be explaining the process for each parish to build a pastoral plan.

The themes of the pastoral plan come from my vision that we, as a diocese, are Better Together. It will be built upon the three pillars of that vision:

  • parishes as centers of mercy and charity,
  • the co-responsibility of laity and clergy,
  • and a stewardship spirituality rooted in gratitude for God’s blessings.

How that vision is enabled in each parish will be discerned by each of you.

In the discernment process, conducted during Lent in the parishes and in a special Youth Summit for our high-school-aged Catholics, you’ll be able to give insights to our pastors and pastoral councils. The pastors and pastoral councils will use this information to develop a three-year pastoral plan for each parish in the diocese.

These parish pastoral plans, with two or three goals or activities, will be provided to the diocese by July 1. Pastors and parish councils will continue working on strategic and business planning to answer the details of “who, what, where, when and how” for these pastoral plans to be implemented.

The Diocesan Pastoral Council and the Diocesan Presbyteral Council will then develop a diocesan pastoral plan. The diocesan pastoral plan will focus on how the diocese, through its Chancery, can build the capacity of the parishes to accomplish their parish goals.

By Advent 2020, each parish will be able to answer the question: What will be the two or three activities happening in the parish that will show people you are the kind of parish described in Evangelii Gaudium?

The discernment and planning process is grounded in the reality of our parishes. Each parish will have access to data specific to their parish and their communities, including social health statistics and sacramental participation trends. “There is nothing more stubborn than facts.” The rural nature of our diocese, the presence of major state universities, the graying of those in our pews, and other realities will inform our plans.

The process is also built to be focused outward, not inward. While information gleaned during the “viability and vitality” project will be available, we are not assuming this planning process will result in parish or school closures or mergers. That may be discerned, but that should not be the final goal. By focusing on what we can do to be responsible adult Christians, stewards of our baptismal call to lives of mercy and charity, we can be the seeds for a new harvest.

This is not your typical Lenten small group sessions. I encourage those who have been engaged in weekly reflections on the Scriptures to realize that this work, of discerning God’s will for his people here in our diocese, is essential to your role as a baptized Catholic. Therefore, please consider suspending your regular programming so you can fully participate in this process.

As we enter this discernment, let us continue to ask our patroness, under the title of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to intercede for us. As Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, she is our model for evangelization: “She is the woman of prayer and work in Nazareth, and she is also Our Lady of Help, who sets out from her town ‘with haste’ to be of service to others. This interplay of justice and tenderness, of contemplation and concern for others” gives us confidence as “we implore her maternal intercession that the Church may become a home for many peoples, a mother for all peoples, and that the way may be opened to the birth of a new world” Evangelii Gaudium, No. 288.