Guest Columnist

Father Leonard Peterson

“The times, they are a changin’,” so wrote Bob Dylan for his 1963 song. Last month, we priests attended two significant meetings about the changing nature of our Archdiocese.

At the first meeting, the topic was the new “face” of the Archdiocese, and how the literal faces within it have changed colors from basic black and white to many shades of brown and yellow.

We asked ourselves how we could best serve these new groups, and become better missionaries in the process.

Spanish-speaking peoples dominate the new wave of immigrants, but close behind are Catholics from Asia. We also learned that the old pattern of settlement, namely of living first in the city, and then, with improved economic status, moving to the suburbs, has also changed. Now many in these new groups move immediately into the ‘burbs.

The second meeting was about the expanding number of Catholics projected for our Archdiocese in the coming years and the contracting number of priests. The ratio is definitely disproportionate.

So a new world beckons. Priests of my vintage have one figurative foot in the old world, where rectories were full and so were churches. And we are aging, closer to retirement than ordination. What this new world will look like is anybody’s guess.

Hints are all around us. Religious women administer parishes in nearby Maryland. Parishes have been closed across the river in the Camden Diocese and up the highway in Allentown.

What to do right now? Hand-wringing is out; prayer and planning are in. We can never yield to the fallacy that prayer is the last resort – it should always be the first. Then comes planning, which is the only intelligent strategy when facing a developing situation.

Of course, all of this will require adjustment on the part of our people. You should forego any hope that the parish situation of 50 years ago, in terms of clergy staffing, will return anytime soon, if ever. Such memories make for nostalgic rumination, but not for a reality check. Nobody at 50 looks much like their high school graduation photo either. But neither of those developments forms authentic ground for pessimism.

It seems to me that the Holy Spirit agrees, if only from the evidence of the last several decades. If there are fewer responses to the call of the priesthood, and rectories have fewer occupants, it appears that the Spirit wishes the major share of our Church’s membership, namely the people in the pews, to step into fuller participation.

This might also mean that automatic availability of a priest 24/7 will have to yield to circumstances beyond the priest’s control. The dreamed-of wedding date and the desired funeral time might not be workable. Bing Crosby at the piano giving personal attention to every problem with a few bars of a ballad never was the reality.

Yet the Holy Spirit does nothing in vain, and it is ultimately His Church anyway. So while change is not always welcome, it is often necessary. While it is not guaranteed to be pleasant, it can be productive in ways unseen. So we can do no better or no worse by applying the triple watchword that marked nearly every railroad crossing. In the face of what’s coming down the track, we had best “stop, look and listen.”

Father Peterson is pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Hatfield.