Thursday, September 27, 2012

Pastoral Planning: Build on the Rock of an Encounter or Don't Bother Building

One of the things I love about Pope Benedict XVI is his capacity to take complicated questions and provide a penetrating analysis that is easily understood by those of us who have about 1/10 of his intelligence.  Additionally, Pope Benedict is never afraid to swim against the cultural current--whether that be the culture of the world or the culture of particular ecclesiastical structures.  His Year of Faith is one such example of this.

Throughout the United States, dioceses are confronted with the reality that they have fewer Catholics, fewer Catholics attending Masses, fewer priests, fewer Catholic Schools, and a lot less money to pay for things.  It is a serious and grave situation.  There is undoubtedly a need for a better allocation of resources and a more prudent us of money.  We have these huge structures but their weight rests upon stilts that cannot support them.  But, the present culture in many ecclesiastical structures is to depend solely upon reorganization, restructuring, and adding new bureaucracies. 

This morning I read a quote from Pope Benedict XVI to the bishops of France during their recent visit to Rome.  Here is what he said:

Solving the pastoral problems that present themselves in your dioceses must never limit itself to organizational questions, however important these may be. This [approach] risks placing an emphasis on seeking efficiency through a sort of 'bureaucratization of pastoral care,' focused on structures, organizations and programs, ones which can become 'self-referential,' at the exclusive use of the members of those structures. These would have scarce impact on the life of Christians who are distanced from regular practice [of the faith]. Instead, evangelization requires starting from the encounter with the Lord, within a dialogue rooted in prayer, which then concentrates on the witness of giving itself toward the end of helping the people of our time to recognize and discover anew the signs of the presence of God.
–Pope Benedict XVI
Ad Limina Address to the Bishops of Western France
Castel Gandolfo
21 September 2012

I think we have to take his words seriously and adopt the path that he has marked out for us.  The root problem confronting us is not structural.  The root problem  is a lack of Faith.  This is why I am delighted that in the midst of pastoral planning in my own Archdiocese of Boston, the Holy Father has called for the Year of Faith.  In this way, we will be confronted daily with the fact that reorganization alone is not sufficient.  This is not to disparage attempts to reorganize, but it is to say that reorganization cannot be seen as the fundamental issue.  The reason we are in the mess we are in is because of a lack of Faith.

I have already been involved in Pastoral Planning in my own parishes quite a bit.  I can see already what the Holy Father means about how focusing upon the "bureaucratization of pastoral care" can become self-referential.  The goal cannot be more committees where we go around congratulating ourselves for having more committees.  God save and preserve us from that!  The goal needs to be evangelization.  And evangelization needs to be about Faith.  Strong parishes are parishes where Faith is strong, the Gospel is preached, the Liturgy is celebrated faithfully and nobly, and where people are growing in their knowledge and love of God.  Evangelization has to be about Jesus Christ and Faith.

Again, this is not to suggest that bureaucratic adjustments are pointless.  But, they are pointless if they are all we do.  There is a subtle temptation that comes along with bureaucratic solutions and that is to rely upon them rather than upon the Gospel.  What ails the Church right now is not primarily a poor organization.  The primary affliction is a tepid faith and a lack of public witnesses to the Faith.  We need to rely upon the Gospel.  If we build a pastoral plan on the Gospel, then we are building on solid rock.  If we build upon anything else, we are building upon sand.

The Gospels show us Jesus sending out his disciples and telling them to bring nothing along with them on the journey.  Our pastoral plan must always be the Gospel and the Gospel alone.  Any other plan must always be seen as a means to proclaiming the Gospel and not as an end in itself.  To ignore this is to put ourselves in even greater danger.  This is why the Pope has called for the Year of Faith.  We need to proclaim the Gospel again in all of its fullness.

I think there is a fear when it comes to trusting the Gospel.  For quite some time now, we have been capitulating on all sorts of issues because we are afraid to let the Gospel be our plan.  We are afraid that the Gospel won't be sufficient.  And, the more we allow other types of mentalities to overrule the rule of faith, the more the Church suffers decreasing numbers and decreasing influence in the culture.  We should rather preach the Gospel and die poor than to put a bushel basket over our lamp and succumb to the temptation to rely upon something other than the light of Truth.

The reason there are empty churches, Catholics who oppose Gospel teachings, and a general decline in Catholic life is not because we have too few committees.  We have too little Faith.  That's the real diagnosis.  And, there is some cowardice on the part of a lot of us.  We are afraid to preach the full Gospel because we are afraid the local politician might pull our building permits if we upset him, the wealthy donor might pull his financial support if we say his position on abortion is contrary to the Gospel, and the whole parish might not put as much in the collection basket if we turn the Liturgy from being centered around the priest and the congregation to being centered around God.  When our pastoral plan is something other than the Gospel, we become paralyzed.  Only the Gospel makes the Church free to live in the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

Pope Benedict XVI has given us the pastoral plan for the future.  He has turned our attention to Jesus Christ and Faith in Him.  The primary problem is not buildings, staffing, money, or structures.  The primary problem--and it is a big problem--is that Faith is weak.  We need to turn again to Jesus and put our entire life in His hands.  We need to come to know and love Jesus Christ.  Faith has two acts proper to it.  The first is to believe.  The second is to confess.  If we deepen our faith, that necessarily means that we will be more ardent confessors of the Faith.  The New Evangelization is about Catholics proclaiming the Gospel to others.  In order to proclaim that Gospel, we first have to believe it. 

I have no idea whether the pastoral plan adopted in my own Archdiocese will work or not.  No one knows the answer to that.  I certainly hope that it does work, but in order for it to work, I think it has to start out from a genuine faith and from a personal encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.  The only way it will work is for it to be within the context of the Year of Faith and the New Evangelization.  It would be an unmitigated disaster if we just ploughed ahead with bureaucratic methods without reference to the Faith.  Let me say it again: We need Faith!  Why don't we have vocations?  Why are Catholics not having children?  Why are churches empty?  Why is their widespread ignorance about the Church's teachings?  Why do many Catholics not go to confession?  Why do students graduate from Catholic schools and universities and stop going to Mass?  What explains these rapidly declining orders of religious men and women that will soon disappear but who are charging headlong into false teaching?  The problem is Faith.

Pope Benedict XVI is calling all of us to turn to Christ and learn from Him.  He is calling us to grow in Faith and once again be overwhelmed by the encounter with Christ.  He is calling us to draw others into this encounter.  If a pastoral plan draws us to Christ and others to Christ, then it is a good plan.  But, we have to be very cautious not to spend all of our time building self-congratulating structures that make us feel good because "at least we are doing something."  All of our reorganization, restructuring, cost-saving, etc has to be accompanied by a radical return to the Faith.  When the Son of Man returns, will He find Faith in Beverly, Boston, France, and Italy?  That's the real question that we all need to address and the Pope has given us the Year of Faith to do just that.


  1. bene dictum

    Velit Deus perseverant benedicentem vobis Pater

    1. Thanks but you have to help me with the Latin. I understand all of the words but the conjugations and declensions have me lost. What does this say?


  3. Yeah, google translates it as May God continue to bless you father. But that is not a correct translation. I'm just curious if it is a google translation that is poor or if it says something I am unable to figure out.

  4. nope
    next time i will use Greek, Spanish or French to get the conjugation correct ;)

    great post!

  5. Faith (& Trust).
    The trust is what's been permanently damaged.

  6. SMS, thanks for the comment. Thankfully, Faith is a Divine gift and grace, so no matter how poorly we poor sinners fail to live up to the nobility of our calling, the light of Faith can still penetrate. God can heal all things and make all things new. God Bless.

  7. Fr. David, Just ran into your post and its actually what I needed to hear at this moment! God is using what you wrote over a year ago! Blessings!