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Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh begins unveiling models for reorganization

Natasha Lindstrom
| Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, 10:39 p.m.
Marylou Anderson, 64, a 14-year member of St. Alexis church in McCandless, uses an automated clicker to share her feedback about potential new models proposed for her parish on Monday, Oct. 10. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has entered the parishioner feedback stage of a major planning initiative called, 'On Mission for the Church Alive!'
Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
Marylou Anderson, 64, a 14-year member of St. Alexis church in McCandless, uses an automated clicker to share her feedback about potential new models proposed for her parish on Monday, Oct. 10. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has entered the parishioner feedback stage of a major planning initiative called, 'On Mission for the Church Alive!'
Helen Schaefers, 78, of Marshall shares on a feedback form her input on two potential models proposed for her church of 24 years, St. Alexis in McCandless, during an information session on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has entered the parishioner feedback stage of a major planning initiative called, 'On Mission for the Church Alive!'
Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
Helen Schaefers, 78, of Marshall shares on a feedback form her input on two potential models proposed for her church of 24 years, St. Alexis in McCandless, during an information session on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has entered the parishioner feedback stage of a major planning initiative called, 'On Mission for the Church Alive!'
Daniel Rhodes, 45, left, and his wife, Jennifer Rhodes, 41, discuss new models proposed for St. Alexis church in McCandless on Monday, Oct. 10. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has entered the parishioner feedback stage of a major planning initiative called, 'On Mission for the Church Alive!'
Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
Daniel Rhodes, 45, left, and his wife, Jennifer Rhodes, 41, discuss new models proposed for St. Alexis church in McCandless on Monday, Oct. 10. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has entered the parishioner feedback stage of a major planning initiative called, 'On Mission for the Church Alive!'

Helen Schaefers took a seat in the pew, picked up a palm-sized electronic clicker and grimaced slightly.

“I don't do anything technical; I drive my grandkids' crazy,” Schaefers, 78, of Marshall said with a soft chuckle, as she fiddled with the automated response device given to her and some 400 fellow parishioners gathered inside St. Alexis Church in McCandless.

“But I'm glad they're getting our input,” added Schaefers, a 24-year parish member who says she recognizes it's time for her diocese re-evaluate how to disburse its dwindling resources.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is undertaking a major reorganization and planning initiative, dubbed “On Mission for the Church Alive!” which in early 2018 could usher in new models — including some mergers, closures and newly formed clusters of churches sharing resources — for 192 parishes across a six-county region.

Monday night marked the first set of more than 350 meetings scheduled through Dec. 1, with interactive sessions starting with 17 meetings in the Pittsburgh area's North and West hills. Two models provided to parishioners at St. Alexis, for instance, would each use different groupings to reduce eight parishes in the area to five.

“It's hard, but I knew it was coming,” said Marylou Anderson, 64, a 14-year member of St. Alexis.

The two-hour session included a video message from Bishop David Zubik, who touched on the dismal figures threatening many parishes.

The number of active Catholics has declined from 914,000 in 1980 to 632,000 in 2015, diocesan figures show.

Since 2000, weekly Mass attendance has dropped by 40 percent — for almost 100,000 fewer regular churchgoers; K-8 Catholic school enrollment fell by 50 percent; and the number of active priests plummeted from 338 to 225.

By 2025, if trends hold, the diocese projects that just 112 active priests will remain.

“Right now we have more space than people,” evening facilitator and diocesan spokesman Bob DeWitt said, “and we need to use our God-given resources wisely.”

Each parish will receive two to four possible models, which describe not only building consolidations, but the clergy and lay available to staff them.

“These are not final; these are drafts,” DeWitt reiterated. “As the bishop said, they are incomplete because they don't yet have your feedback.”

Initial feedback using the automated clickers showed a majority of parishioners were either excited, hopeful or interested in seeing the plans take shape.

Among guidelines used in developing the models: parishes would contain between 7,000 and 60,000 members, some with multiple churches; aim for no fewer than 1,000 people at Sunday Mass, preferably between 2,000 and 4,000; and do not exceed one priest for every 2,400 persons, except for specialized needs, such as language skills. The diocese will avoid grouping parishes in either extreme financial stress or great affluence.

Separately, the diocese's Department for Catholic School Administration is restructuring its schools.

“Some schools may remain much as they are in terms of staff and structure, but would receive regional support and have regional governance,” states a handout given to parishioners. “Others may share a principal. Still others may be structured with two campuses allowing for more specialized education based on student grade levels.”

Zubik plans to unveil the final set of “On Mission” recommendations in early 2018.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review.

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