10/8/2009 ANALYSIS At Rensselaer parish, faith and plans converge
WILLIAM GREBE Intern
"Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." So Jesus emphasized the importance of broadening our sense of community in Matthew's
This bit of wisdom is now manifesting itself in the new communities and cooperation between parishes formed by the "Called to Be Church" pastoral planning process in the Albany Diocese. The Parish of St. John the Evangelist and St. Joseph in Rensselaer, and its local planning group, are no exception.
The Called to be Church process grouped parishes from around the Diocese and asked the parishioners to determine the future of their churches based on attendance, demographics, available priests and other factors. St. John's/St. Joseph's in Rensselaer was grouped with St. Mary's in Clinton Heights, Holy Spirit in East Greenbush and Sacred Heart in Castleton.
St. John's/St. Joseph's had previously merged into one parish with two churches. Through their discussions in the Called to be Church process, the local group recommended that the parish close one of its churches.
Parish members then held various meetings and decided they would shut down St. Joseph's on Third Street and use St. John's, a Romanesque structure with a rare beehive bell tower that sits just east of the train station.
The process also forced people to step away from many long-established programs and habits in order to compromise on new structures.
Rev. Adam Forno, pastor, noted that there was a strong sense of cooperation. He said, however, that the process "brought up some historical feelings of territorialism."
Territorialism is common in many older parishes, since boundaries were once strictly observed by members and clergy as stipulated by canon law. In this case, it presented a challenge to the cooperation that Called to Be Church sought.
Eventually, resistance was largely overcome - which George Harrienger, a member of the planning committee, sees as a good thing. "Two or three" finally began to gather to face the communities' challenges.
Parishioners now describe a change in the way the practice their faith. Many find themselves attending other parishes in the local group in addition to their own.
Cheryl Kawola, another member of the planning committee, said that she would have been unlikely to know a member of another parish in the group before Called to Be Church. Now, though, she feels welcome in all four churches - so much so that she has begun to lector at St. Mary's on occasion.
For her and many others, this change reflects a broader understanding of the Church than previously existed in the area.
Shut and open
This and other changes have given many people hope for The Parish of St. John and St. Joseph as it goes though the process of closing St. Joseph's, an intimate Gothic church.
Lynda De Celle is a long-time member of St. Joseph's. She said that many people, especially the elderly, used to see the church building as central to their faith lives.
She explained that the consolidation has changed that perspective immensely, and that more parishioners are coming to understand that their faith can live on without the building.
More optimism has come from the process because of the efforts made to collaborate more deeply to continue the presence of Catholic education in Southern Rensselaer Country. Many people, Mr. Harrienger among them, see Catholic schooling as one of the most important parts of the faith. He said that Catholic schools are the best way to pass on the faith.
The community has long since accepted that they could not keep all of the schools they originally had. In the group's final Called to Be Church report, they renewed a commitment to a shared Catholic school at Holy Spirit.
They have determined that this practice can live on if they work together. This would have been less likely in the self-sufficient heyday of the parishes.
"We all make plans for our children, but God makes plans for them, too," said Ms. Kawola. "The same is true of our churches. We have to listen." She and others realize that people do not like their churches to change, but they accept it.
Father Forno admitted that during the parish discussions, he was dismayed "that the old divisions surfaced." But, he said, members of the parish council reassured him that the process worked.
"They said that it brought up emotions that were there, but that does not negate the oneness that we've achieved."
The process has brought about changes in the ways people understand and practice their faith, though their faith itself remains the same. It is through these changes that people have come to a new understanding of how to "be" Church.
(William Grebe, a junior and classics major at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., served as a diocesan research intern this past summer. Editor Christopher D. Ringwald contributed to this story.)