Bishop Howard J. Hubbard sat down with the editor of The Evangelist, Christopher D. Ringwald, to talk about his final decisions for the diocesan pastoral plan, Called to be Church, his personal feelings and the future of the Albany Diocese.

What do you hope will come from the final Called to be Church pastoral plan?
Renewal and revitalization, something that's been missing in some areas. The local planning groups made recommendations for closings, mergers and linkages, but also for the revitalization of our parishes in four areas: prayer and worship, faith formation, human services and outreach, and social justice. 

I hope that with the configuration taking place that the remaining faith communities will be more vibrant and vital and well-prepared to meet the needs of our Catholic community in the 21st century. 

What will a typical parish look like as a result of this plan?
It will have a larger worshipping community than its predecessor. There will be more effort expended on mission than on maintenance. There will be a variety of inter-parochial activities for adult faith formation, youth and young adult ministry and evangelization than previously. 

The reconfiguration that takes place will give a greater sense of stability and hence greater enthusiasm and confidence in developing ministries [for] the present and future.

For example, last fall there was a parish recommended for closure, so this year they ran their confirmation class with the successor parish. A catechist said what a wonderful experience it had been to, instead of having 12 confirmands, to have 50-60 together. It gave them a greater sense of vibrancy, and many realized they had friends from school who shared their faith. 

Why did you begin this process?
It became obvious, given the shifting demographics and the number of priests scheduled to retire and the number of priests in the seminary, that we could not operate and staff parishes into the future, and that we had to engage in a process of reconfiguration. 

Then we had to choose a top-down process or a bottom-up one. A bottom-up one, which we chose, does take more time and is unpredictable. But it leads to a more creative and responsive process and plan. There are many ideas, such as in ministry, that would not have been on my radar screen. 

I've been the episcopal moderator of the National Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development since 1978, so I was pretty familiar with the models used all over the country. We studied these and tried to use the best [for Called to be Church].

Is the final plan a good one?
Yes, it is a good plan. Is it perfect? No. Of the 38 local planning groups (LPGs), some were more innovative than others, but overall the groups worked diligently and met the criteria. Their final plans included far more than recommendations for closings, mergers and linkage; they included [steps] on how to fulfill the mission of the Church in forthcoming years. Each group is responsible for monitoring progress in the parishes...and making reports by June 30. We'll see if they met their goals and then work with the parishes in areas where they haven't. 

What makes it a good plan?
We will have a better balance of resources to match where our people are, and to ensure, for the foreseeable future, that they have the liturgical services to meet the needs of the people and the priests to service them. 

Without this pastoral plan, we would have had to wake up one day and tell people, "Your church has to close." 

What will the plan do for Catholics in the Diocese?
There will be more opportunities for ministry in their parish or on the inter-parochial level. They will still have the Eucharist every weekend, and the sacraments. And [the setting] will only be different for a minority of people. Four-fifths of our worship sites will remain open. 

We encourage [closed] parishes to carry on the rites and traditions of the old parish in the new or merged one, and to have some of their artifacts in the new one. 

We are all members of the Body of Christ; there are no winners or losers in this. A new [entity] is not simply a merger of a closed parish and an open one, but a new parish where people come together to become a new community [where] people will sense a new dynamic and feel welcome. 

In two or three years, what should be the state of the Diocese and parishes?
I would hope that the process would be solidified and the parishes left are healthier and more vibrant spiritually and fiscally. 

I hope that we fulfill the dream of Called to be Church that we are all called to be Church in our family, parish and society, and that we remind members of the Catholic community that we are all people of God.

For those whose parishes close, what would you say?
I understand and appreciate the heartbreak of losing your home. 

One of the parishes closing is my home parish of St. Patrick's in Troy. I went to school there, received my First Communion there, I said my first Mass in this country there after my ordination in Rome. My parents were married there. 

Growing up in the [19]40s and '50s, I could not imagine this day would come. My father was baptized at St. Peter's; my sisters and I were baptized at St. Paul's. I feel a tremendous pain at seeing these parishes have to be closed, and I appreciate the hurt people are feeling. 

This is not an ivory tower exercise for me. My spiritual roots are in these parishes, without these I would not have the faith I have or the vocation I have. The buildings [themselves] are part of the fiber of my being, and it's a source of great sadness. 

But like a father of the family, I have to balance the fiscal and personnel resources of the Diocese. 

Is having 33 churches close like a death?
Yes, it is analogous to a death in that often people have to go through the stages of grieving as with the death of a family member.

This [round of closures and mergers] is not a failure....People say, "What did we do wrong?" But it may only be a matter of adjusting to new realities.
Is this it? 

Change and planning are an ongoing process. There will probably be a need for new structures [in the future].

We've had reconfigurations [in the Diocese] since 1972, and the Church has continued to thrive. 

Do you wish it were 1950 instead?
Well, it is a different world, but no. God put me on the earth in this time and place all for a purpose, and at a time for me to use my gifts and talents to serve others and for the glory and honor of God. 

Given the priest shortage, would married and female priests be the answer?
That's a decision beyond my pay grade, and it's a decision for the universal Church. We have to plan based on what we have. I meet every six months with my 

[Protestant] counterparts, who have married and women clergy, and they have the same problems in their churches.