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'We need to make our worship better,' Pittsburgh Bishop Zubik says

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Bishop David Zubik of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. (Trib photo)
John C. Schisler | Tribune-Review
Bishop David Zubik of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. (Trib photo)
Bishop David Zubik speaks with the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.
John C. Schisler | Tribune-Review
Bishop David Zubik speaks with the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.
Bishop David Zubik speaks with the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.
John C. Schisler | Tribune-Review
Bishop David Zubik speaks with the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.
Bishop David Zubik speaks with the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.
John C. Schisler | Tribune-Review
Bishop David Zubik speaks with the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.
Bishop David Zubik speaks with the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.
John C. Schisler | Tribune-Review
Bishop David Zubik speaks with the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh must focus on “better homilies, better music and more people” as its six-county territory attempts to reverse a series of “sobering” trends and prepares for a major overhaul in 2018, Bishop David Zubik said Wednesday.

“The No. 1 priority has to be, ‘We need to make our worship better,'” Zubik told the Tribune-Review. “Second of all, we need to do the best job that we can to get not only more ordained leaders, but we really have to open up lots of doors for the lay leaders of the church.”

The Pittsburgh diocese is closing in on the parishioner-input phase of a comprehensive planning initiative called “On Mission for the Church Alive!,” through which leaders are examining how to strengthen church participation, reorganize aging infrastructure and make the most of dwindling resources.

They're up against dismal data.

The number of active Catholics within the Pittsburgh diocese has declined rapidly in recent decades, 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.

“I hear that the laity is going to have to take that torch and do some of what the priests were doing, and my concern is our laity is not really trained well enough to do that in time,” said St. Andrew's parishioner John Cascino, 53, a father of six young children in Butler. “It's going to be a while before all these new deacon classes get taught.”

Empty pews correlate with dwindling coffers: About half of almost 200 parishes lost money in 2015, compared with one-third of parishes operating in the red in 2012, Zubik said.

Critics of a massive reorganization — such as small groups of parishioners who've fought recent closures of cash-strapped churches — worry that too much emphasis will be placed on consolidation breaking up longtime faith communities.

“There will be some who people who say, ‘This is all about closing churches,' or people will be cynical and say, ‘Why the heck is he asking us to get involved in these discussions because he's already made up his mind?'” Zubik acknowledged.

“The answer is that's not at all what it's about, and I haven't made the decisions,” Zubik continued. “I need to hear from people.”

Over the summer, Zubik led four of 18 informational events on the initiative, with about 4,500 people attending. Between Oct. 10 and Dec. 1, each of 195 parishes is set to host two “consultation sessions” so members can learn about proposed organizational models and provide feedback.

“The statistics were very sobering,” Zubik said of how parishioners reacted to the summer sessions, “but at the same time, I found they were very excited about the important aspect of why we're doing this: to enliven people's faith.”

Among topics under discussion: growing the pools of highly trained lay leaders and deacons; getting churches to be more hospitable to outsiders; mapping out financial viability 20 years from now; and appealing to youths through new types of ministry while simultaneously strengthening pastoral care for the elderly.

The final set of recommendations — which Zubik plans to unveil in early 2018 — will be the culmination of three years of input from parishioners, clergy and lay leaders, as curated and analyzed by the “On Mission” commission, which comprises more than 80 members appointed by pastors across the region.

“We have to be creative in forging new ways to engage young people, and people who have felt they are not welcome in our church or who have chosen a different path,” said Kathy Buechel, chairwoman of the “On Mission” commission, as well as a University of Pittsburgh philanthropy professor and a member of St. Paul's in Oakland. “We're thinking of this as an opportunity to reawaken the spirit of the Church.”

The 78 parishes of the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg — with 142,000 members across four counties — appear to be in better fiscal shape. Greensburg diocese spokesman Jerry Zufelt said that no parishes appear to be in “dire financial straits.” That stability follows two reorganizations in the past seven years, resulting in 16 parish closures and mergers involving eight parishes.

In designing the “On Mission” initiative, Zubik said he drew from elements of the Archdiocese of Boston's long-term planning efforts.

Boston's “Disciples in Mission” plan involves creating “collaboratives” of one to three parishes overseen by a pastor and team of priests, deacons and lay staff, with each parish maintaining its own finances and identity, Boston Archdiocese spokesman Terrence Donilon said.

The Pittsburgh diocese includes Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Lawrence, Greene and Washington counties — a 3,750-square-mile area made up of 632,000 Catholics, or one-third of the zone's total population.

It last embarked on a major reorganization in 1989, and shrank from 310 parishes using 333 buildings to 218 parishes using 288 buildings by 1998.

In 2016, at least 37 diocesan priests split their time among more than one parish, noted Zubik, with some overseeing three to four.

More consolidation “needs to happen so that they're not driving from church to church and trying to serve so many parishes,” Cascino said. “It's going to be hard, and people are not going to want to give up their family church. But it's a reality, and the upside of it is that we could have larger churches filled with more people — that in itself creates a sense of vibrancy.”

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