Parishes across the Albany Diocese are bracing themselves to hear the results this weekend of the two-and-a-half-year "Called to be Church" pastoral planning process.
Local media have already reported the official number: 20 percent of the worship sites in the Diocese are expected to close or merge - a loss that, while painful to confront, is far lower than that of many other dioceses. The Diocese of Camden, N.J., for example, has gone from 124 parishes to 66 in its pastoral planning process.
The greatest number of closures and mergers will be in cities, including Albany, Amsterdam, Cohoes,
Schenectady and Troy.
"I'm dreading the hurt and pain some people will experience; I find it heartbreaking," stated Bishop Howard J. Hubbard. "But we've been through months of dedicated and determined effort, and people have been waiting since June on pins and needles" for the results.
At this point, he added, "Knowing is better than not knowing."
For decades, the Bishop recalled, "parochialism served our Diocese well." Catholics' strong bonds to their parishes helped to preserve cultural traditions and build community.
But changes in the Church, in population demographics and in society itself have made it impossible to keep all 164 of the Diocese's parishes open.
Bishop Hubbard recalled that, when he was ordained in 1963, there were more than 400 priests serving in the Diocese. Moreover, there was no retirement age for priests, so even those in their 80s and 90s were considered "active."
Today, there are 124 active diocesan priests. Bishop Hubbard expects to see that number drop to just 90 by the time he hits retirement age in 2013.
"I understand and appreciate your grief," he said to Catholics whose parishes will be closing or merging; "but, the realities are, I don't have the personnel."
As the shepherd of a flock of 400,000 Catholics, he told The Evangelist, he must constantly weigh the needs of the faithful against the fact that priests can only do so much.
"How far can I extend the priests? How many parishes can I ask them to handle? Father's a human being, too."
He gave the example of Delaware County: In an area the size of Rhode Island, there are a half-dozen churches about 45 minutes apart from one another.
"If I don't have priests in that wide geographic area, we're essentially closing the Church," he noted. "In the city, it's five minutes to the next [parish]. I have to deal with those realities, and I hope people will be sensitive to it."
His comments pointed up the Diocese's shifting demographics: Since 1960, every major city in the Diocese has lost about a third of its population, while suburban areas have grown an average of 50 to 75 percent.
In addition, many of the Diocese's parishes were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when few Catholics owned automobiles and most stayed within unwritten cultural or geographic boundaries.
Today, a priest in a suburban parish may serve the same number of Catholics as the population of six city parishes. Many Catholics who still attend city parishes don't actually live in the cities, but "commute" to church on the weekends.
And culturally, said Bishop Hubbard, "we're pretty much an assimilated society."
The Bishop compared the work of Called to be Church to that of both the Lundine Commission, established in 2006 by former New York State Lieutenant Gov. Stan Lundine to examine how local governments can become more efficient; and the Berger Commission, which did the same for the state's hospitals and nursing homes. Both recommended cuts and consolidation of services wherever possible.
For the Albany Diocese, said the Bishop, good stewardship of resources means that many parish ministries would be best operated inter-parochially.
He noted that "it's better to have 100 kids than 25" participating in a youth ministry program, and that Advent, Lent, pre-Cana and many other parish programs can be revitalized under the co-sponsorship of several parishes.
Statistics, mission, activities, Christian services and outreach, fiscal resources and building condition were all among areas parishes were asked to examine over the past 30 months before creating their "Called to be Church" recommendations.
By the end of June 2008, all 38 Local Planning Groups (LPGs) of parishes in the Diocese had turned in their recommendations for whether their parishes should close, merge with other parishes or simply link with nearby churches to better provide services.
The remainder of the year was spent examining the plans: first, diocesan department heads with expertise in specific areas reviewed the recommendations and made their comments; then the 24-member Called to be Church Review Commission evaluated the recommendations in four areas (large city, small city, suburban and rural parishes).
About a dozen plans were initially returned to the LPGs with "significant reservations," meaning that the review commission believed they needed more work. After LPG leaders met with diocesan officials to discuss the problems, most were able to come to a consensus.
Bishop Hubbard told The Evangelist that he received the review commission's final summary of their recommendations in November and consulted with the diocesan Presbyteral Council, which represents priests, before making his final decisions on which parishes would close, merge or link.
He emphasized that, because of the work done by more than 1,000 Catholics in the Diocese who were involved in the planning process, he was able to accept about 90 percent of the recommendations.
Although the closures and mergers will be "rolled out" through 2010, most will take place before the end of 2009. The Bishop said that several LPGs had asked him to "rip the Band-Aid off the wound" and close parishes sooner rather than later, and he agreed.
For the parishes that must close or merge, the next step will be to sit down with an inch-thick manual created by the Diocese that covers disposal of property, preservation of records, cancellation of contracts and services, and rituals for closing liturgies. Welcoming ceremonies for new parishioners are also included.
Diocesan officials don't yet know how many parish employees will be affected by the closures, but hope to find positions for as many people as possible with other parishes or Catholic institutions and facilities.
For parish property, the first priority will be that it is sold for another religious use. If that isn't possible, not-for-profit uses will be considered, then commercial uses - although none can be antithetical to the Church's mission.
Bishop Hubbard noted that the financial resources of a parish that closes or merges will not go to the diocesan level, but stay in the local community.
A task force has also been set up to look at issues related to evangelization: how parishes can best use today's technology to reach out to Catholics, how to best serve the needs of young adults (ages 19-40) and other "best practices," including outreach and welcoming to the segment of Catholics who will be hurt and withdraw from the Church after the parish closings.
Other task forces will address the needs of Hispanic Catholics, the Diocese's largest cultural group; the Polish-speaking community; and campus ministries to college students.
John Manning has overseen the Called to be Church process since 2006. He told The Evangelist that this weekend's announcements will not be an ending: "Pastoral planning will never end. There are new ways of being institutions. We're not willing to say, 'This is all about dying.' Faith continues."