Father Jim Benz has been asking his parishioners to pray for indifference.
As part of the All Things New strategic pastoral planning initiative, it seems like a strange request. But citing the wisdom of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Father Benz said indifference is “the capacity to let go of what doesn’t help me to love God or love others — while staying engaged with what does.”
In the process of restructuring parishes through All Things New, there is a need to focus more on what is best for the Kingdom of God in St. Louis, rather than what is easy or more comfortable, he recently wrote in a bulletin blurb to parishioners at St. Cletus Parish in St. Charles.
“There will be hard decisions to be made, and some folks will be unhappy, but knowing, loving and serving God is always where our focus needs to be as Catholics and as Christians, not on our likes and dislikes,” Father Benz said.
Throughout October and November, the Archdiocese of St. Louis is hosting more than 350 listening sessions as part of All Things New, the archdiocesan strategic pastoral planning initiative.
The sessions are the latest opportunity for Catholics to provide their feedback on the future of the Church in St. Louis. They began Oct. 8 and include up to two for each of the 178 parishes in the archdiocese.
Each session will feature a presentation narrated by Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski and Father Chris Martin, vicar for strategic planning. The presentation will feature national, local and individual parish demographics, data trends and other information, including draft models of the future structure of parishes in the archdiocese. Each presentation also will be followed by a guided discussion led by a trained volunteer facilitator, who will provide instructions for providing additional feedback through the end of 2022.
The draft models include two to five possible restructuring scenarios for the parishes in each planning area, or group of neighboring parishes. The territory of the archdiocese is divided into 15 planning areas. (Planning area maps are found at allthingsnew.archstl.org under the “Ways to Engage” menu.)
The goals of the listening sessions are to share the current state of parishes and the archdiocese and to solicit feedback from as many parishioners as possible about the draft models for each planning area.
Based on feedback from priests and key parish leaders, changes have already been made to some of those draft models. When surveyed in the fall of 2021, 88% of priests said they preferred that diocesan leaders provide some draft options first, with the opportunity to provide feedback on those options. Across the 15 planning areas throughout the archdiocese, there were a total of 42 draft models initially offered.
As a result of input from priests and key parish leaders at meetings held in the past several months, adjustments already have been made to draft models for eight planning areas. With some initial feedback, an additional eight draft models have since been proposed, and groupings affecting 30 parishes have undergone changes.
Father Martin acknowledged the anxiety surrounding the changes coming to the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
“Every planning area will be affected by change,” he said. “We don’t know what the final product looks like yet. But what we do know is change is coming. We’re proposing draft models of what the change could look like, but are already drafting new models in response to people who are saying: ‘This makes more sense.’ The healthy response is not fighting the change, but what change makes most sense.’”
Four primary areas were considered when creating the draft models: evangelization, pastoral care, clergy and resources to support long-term ministry efforts. The number of parishes in the archdiocese is expected to be reduced from 178 to under 100, with the average number of households in each parish increasing from 800 to 1,800.
Overall, the Catholic population around St. Louis continues to decline. For the first time in nearly 60 years, the Archdiocese of St. Louis reported fewer than 500,000 registered Catholics, with the archdiocese reporting approximately 490,000 Catholics as part of official parish reports in 2021.
Priestly vocations also have declined. More than 65% of priests in the archdiocese currently are ages 65-74. Other declines have occurred in Mass attendance, sacramental participation and attendance at Catholic schools and religious education (Parish Schools of Religion).
Father Chuck Barthel, pastor of Mary Mother of the Church in south St. Louis County, has been making deeper connections with parishioners when speaking about All Things New.
Through bulletin articles, homilies and individual conversations, Father Barthel said he’s been looking for ways to make connections, sharing examples of evangelization within the Church.
“That has been a tough word for people to get their heads wrapped around,” he said. “We’re trying to talk about it wherever there are little opportunities to draw attention to it.”
Father Barthel has talked about the process of grieving that can come with a major change. He said grief is a human and natural response to change, which is why it is important to remain attentive to listening to what people have to say about the All Things New process and have a sense of compassion.
Something he asks of others is: “Can you imagine things to be different?’ If we can’t imagine it to be different, it will be difficult to get there,” he said. “We remember things how they are and how they were, but can we imagine it to be different?”
Sign up for a parish listening session: stlreview.com/3TqQoNQ
Find your parish workbook: stlreview.com/3VzsVvP
Frequently asked questions: stlreview.com/3EQKq4Y
Archdiocesan parish and priest landsacpe