As part of the ongoing strategic planning process for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, 59 parishes mostly in eight of the 44 Pastoral Planning Areas (PPAs) will undergo study over the next several months, with the purpose of deciding how best to utilize their collective gifts in living out the mission of the Church at both the parish and the archdiocesan level.
In seven of the PPAs — 320 and 370 in Delaware County, 500, 540 and 560 in Philadelphia-North, 600 and 650 in Philadelphia-South — some restructuring is expected to result in the merging of some parishes and the strengthening of the remaining parishes.
No parishes are expected to merge in PPA 430, which is in a process to encourage dialogue, because the northern Montgomery County area has experienced significant growth.
Pastors in the affected PPAs have already met with the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Committee to formulate suggested plans, set goals and identify criteria.
Now pastors are taking this information back to their finance and pastoral council and people, and working together with the other pastors of the PPA, their dean and a facilitator to come up with a proposal that will best serve their area.
Just how many parishes will be absorbed by other parishes is difficult to say at this point, according to Msgr. Arthur E. Rodgers, Coordinator for Archdiocesan Planning Initiatives.
However, as an example, under initial suggestions PPA 500 in Northeast Philadelphia would go from eight parishes to six, served by eight priests instead of the present 10. That scenario may not be typical because there are so many factors to consider.
One of the first benchmarks, Msgr. Rodgers suggests, is 1,200 households with at least 400 active contributors. Looking at statistical trends compiled from data over the last five years, planners will ask key questions:
• Is the parish growing or shrinking?
• Are marriages and baptisms increasing and what is the ratio between baptism and funerals?
• How many people attend Mass? What about other devotions?
• Is there educational and social outreach?
• What about parish organizations, including active pastoral and finance councils?
• Are the buildings in good repair?
• Can the parish meet its financial obligations?
Another factor might be geographic. Would a parish consolidation place undue hardship on the people because of the distance to their new parish?
“We ask the pastors to study the trends, not just what happened last year, to see if the trend means there is a need to merge with another parish or if trends are stable or improving and the parish could stand on its own,” Msgr. Rodgers said.
If a merger is necessary, he noted, it would preferably be a weak parish into a strong parish, making it stronger, rather than two weak parishes merging that might just create a larger weak parish.
In the instance of mergers, it is expected that the name of the parish where the church is situated would be retained, rather than the adoption of a new name.
Also, in the case of a merger between a territorial and a personal (ethnic) parish, the surviving parish would be territorial, not personal.
Churches of parishes that are merged into another may remain in use as a worship site for a limited period of time, with specified restrictions on what may be celebrated there.
“Basically it is used for weddings, funerals and other celebrations,” Msgr. Rodgers said. “We encourage that so people can move away slowly.”
This was not the case in the very recent closing of Ascension Parish in the Kensington section of Philadelphia because the church itself was in such a state of disrepair that it had not been used for liturgies in years.
A painful difficulty when parish mergers are necessary is that people do have tremendous loyalty to the parish where they have worshipped for years.
As the pastors, in consultation with their people, prepare reports, the archdiocese is not looking for reports that say how great their individual parish is, Msgr. Rodgers noted.
“The report should say this is what we think is best for our PPA,” he said. “They might come to the conclusion it is best that their parish stays open but there may be five other parishes in the discussion.”
Under the timeline given to the parishes, the entire planning process is expected to conclude in a few months.
The process includes parish meetings of pastors with their pastoral and finance councils to discuss the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Committee’s proposals, consultation with parishioners, meetings with the regional bishop and dean, and meetings of pastors with the other pastors in their PPA to compare their parish proposal and formulate a PPA-wide proposal.
The final plan will be presented to the Archdiocesan Committee for Strategic Planning.
If the proposal is approved at that point, it will be submitted to the Presbyteral Council for approval by Archbishop Charles Chaput.
Final decisions are expected to be announced in some cases as early as January or in others as late as March. At that point new pastors and transition teams will be appointed in affected parishes.
“We are stressing when a new parish is formed it is the evangelization of people, bringing people in,” Msgr. Rodgers said. “The goal of this is to establish strong, viable parishes that serve the archdiocese in its role of evangelization for years to come.”
Lou Baldwin is a freelance writer and a member of St. Leo Parish, Philadelphia.