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The three parishes in the city of Amsterdam might soon be one...or maybe two. "Everything is up in the air," said Rev. John Medwid, pastor of St. Mary's in Amsterdam.

The three parishes and others in their Local Catholic Community (a term replacing "Local Planning Group") expect to lose one priest this year as a result of Called to be Church, the Albany Diocese's pastoral planning process. (St. Casimir's and St. John the Baptist parishes in Amsterdam also closed in 2009.)

The remaining Amsterdam parishes - St. Joseph's/St. Michael's/Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Mary's and St. Stanislaus - have begun their own planning process to ensure a future Catholic presence in the city. The parishes could merge or link as a result, and could be led by different priests or parish life directors.

Thirty-five parishes closed or merged by the end of 2009 through Called to be Church. The remaining 128 parishes and eight mission churches continue to change: Already, for example, the Amsterdam parishes offer joint penance services, collaborate on some confirmation preparation and combine Mass schedules for Holy Days.

"It's at least a way of introducing people to that concept," Father Medwid said. "I think they're kind of getting it. It isn't now that 'I can stay in my own church building my entire life and never venture out to another Catholic church.'"

Even though Catholic marriages and baptisms in the Diocese fell sharply last decade, statistics suggest the national Catholic population will grow by 25 percent in the next 25 years, as it has since 1985.

In fact, the Diocese experienced a slight upsurge in Mass attendance last year. When it began its October pew counts in 2003, attendance was dropping more than 4 percent each year until 2011, when the decrease slowed to 1.4 percent.

But the Diocese is projected to have approximately 40 fewer priests by the year 2020, according to Rev. David Berberian, the new diocesan administrative advocate for priests and pastor of St. Mary's and Sacred Heart parishes in Albany.

"We're not going to be able to have priests where they are now," Father Berberian said. "We have to learn to deal with less: less priests; less parishes; less money; less Masses, probably. Each individual parish needs to be looked at uniquely."

Rarely does a parish have more than one priest on staff, as in past decades, said Elizabeth Simcoe, diocesan chancellor for pastoral services. About 20 parishes are currently led by women religious, deacons or lay parish life directors, supported by clergy sacramental ministers. Some pastors oversee multiple parishes.

The Diocese will always ensure a priestly presence at Mass.

"We are a eucharistic people," said Deacon Frank Berning, director of the diocesan Office of Pastoral Planning. "We will have Mass."

But "if we want to grow, we have to change," he said. "No longer should parishes see themselves as entities unto themselves."

Teamwork among adjacent parishes has become common. The 13 parishes of the Schenectady deanery, for instance, together provide pastoral care to the homebound, hospitalized and those in nursing homes. An outreach minister was recently hired to coordinate these services, as well as food pantries, social justice projects, advocacy and ministry to the Schenectady County Jail.

The Local Catholic Community of St. Luke's, St. Adalbert's, St. Paul's, St. Joseph's and Our Lady of Mount Carmel parishes in Schenectady now share a faith formation director and coordinator, said Rev. Dominic Isopo, pastor of St. Luke's. By next fall, they aim to teach all 502 students in one, combined program.

To the north, the Local Catholic Community of Corpus Christi parish in Round Lake, St. Mary's in Crescent and St. Edward's in Clifton Park shares confirmation retreats and other faith formation programs, said Rev. Joseph Cebula, pastor of St. Mary's.

The linked parishes of St. Helen's in Niskayuna and Our Lady of Fatima in Schenectady combined youth ministries, pastoral care projects and Mass schedules after Called to be Church. They will merge completely this summer.

"It was nice to have a say over our own destiny," noted Rev. Robert Longobucco, pastor of St. Helen's and sacramental minister to Our Lady of Fatima. "It's about making us a 'we' instead of 'us' and 'them.'"

Father Medwid of Amsterdam affirmed that collaboration makes communities stronger: "The overall goal is to make our communities as strong and as vital as they can be. You can't just do business as usual and hope that things will get better. If we stay the way we are, it will mean that communities will die out individually.

"There's still a lot of hurt out there," he added. "There's still healing that needs to be done. More changes will necessitate more healing."

But that's what Catholics are all about, he said: "The whole essence of who we are is that death-resurrection pattern. Although there is a death that is occurring, there is a life that will come out of that."