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Va. diocese’s parish planners look ahead, face challenge of future with fewer priests

RICHMOND, Va. (The Catholic Virginian) - When representatives and pastors of 13 churches and missions in and around the Roanoke Valley held their second meeting February 23, to address their part of the diocesan strategic plan, their task was to consider various configurations for linking and clustering to accommodate the shrinking number of priests.

But in the process of deliberation, it became clear to many that having more lay professional ministers will be a fundamental part of any long term solution to the current priest shortage.

“The biggest challenge to us right now will be trying to satisfy the spiritual needs of the parishioners without having good, trained leadership,” said Father Remi Sojka, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Salem and chairman of the Local Planning Area (LPA) 14 committee.

The diocesan Office of Pastoral Planning had specified their task to plan how best to group parishes and coordinate priests’ duties to decrease by one the number of priests serving the area and to ensure that no priest presides at more than three Masses per weekend (a requirement of canon law).

Father Remi suggested to the committee that it would have an “easier” time planning and implementing necessary changes because the Roanoke area churches already are used to collaborating with each other.

Clustering parishes, sharing priests

During their session the local planning area representatives hashed out a consensus model for clustering and linking their parishes with a palpable spirit of common purpose and concern for the faithful.

As the committee examined and considered various proposals regarding sharing priests and re-ordering weekend Mass schedules, representatives expressed concern for being able to meet pastoral needs of the people besides weekend liturgy.

They recognized difficulty arises from a combination of the growing size of some parishes outside Roanoke and the distances priests must travel to serve them.

Msgr. Thomas Miller, pastor of St. Andrew’s in Roanoke, noted that the four priests in the Roanoke and Salem parishes can serve Transfiguration Parish in Fincastle, St. John the Evangelist in New Castle and Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount “at least as sacramental ministers.”

“They have had many years of successful experience without a resident priest, but these places deserve to have a full-time pastoral administrator on site,” he contended.

“If there aren’t the financial means, we need to look at ways to subsidize it,” he continued. “We need to invest in full-time lay leadership for our parishes.”

The committee developed a proposal for the area that representatives will present to their parishes in the next several weeks to get comments and suggestions from members of all the churches. Then they will bring the comments from the parish meetings back to the committee for further consideration and discussion in finalizing plans to present to the diocese.

Decision not yet final

At a previous meeting Father Remi had explained to the committee that a decision on implementing clustering in the area is not yet definite, but the group was asked by the diocese to include it in its plan.

“For planning purposes we should assume there will be clustering,” he said.

Their proposal forms two clusters of three small parishes each in the northern and southern parts of the area. One priest would serve the northern cluster of St. Joseph (Clifton Forge), Sacred Heart (Covington) and Shrine of the Sacred Heart (Hot Springs).

One priest would serve the southern cluster of All Saints (Floyd), Risen Lord (Patrick Springs) and St. Joseph (Woodlawn).

Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Salem would be clustered with Transfiguration and provide a priest for Roanoke College on a weekday.

St. Gerard parish in Roanoke would be clustered with St. John’s and Our Lady of Nazareth.

St. Andrew’s would share priestly duties for Francis of Assisi.

“I don’t see any other way to do this,” remarked Msgr. Miller, “without liberal use of Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest (SCAP) and with other pastoral administrator positions added.”

Retaining parish memberships

The committee decided to arrange the priests’ responsibilities in such a way that all four of the larger Roanoke and Salem parishes would have to have periodic liturgies using SCAP to avoid the possibility of parishioners moving their membership.

Sue Ellerbrock, facilitator of the LPA 14 committee meetings, told representatives to discuss with their parishes needs that may arise from new alignments in the plan such as staffing and financial considerations.

Echoing Msgr. Miller’s sentiments, after the meeting Father Remi said, “We are going to have to develop good professional leadership in the parishes and hopefully it will be endorsed by parishioners.”

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Catholic Virginian (www.catholicvirginian.org), official newspaper of the Diocese of Richmond, Va.

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