Timely advice, support as priests of diocese gather in ‘a difficult moment’
By Tom Dermody
In a time of historic transition in the Diocese of Peoria, more than 100 priests gathered to pray and hear words of encouragement, support, and advice.
“I know this is a difficult moment,” said Bishop Louis Tylka in a heartfelt address at Priest Assembly Days, conducted Oct. 17 and 18 at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria. The gathering came in a month that began with the public release of a new draft of parish models in the “Growing Disciples” pastoral planning process and continues with meetings in every parish to encourage feedback.
The models — drafted after a year of in-depth study and discernment — propose a reorganization of the network of parishes throughout the diocese in order to strengthen the local church for present and future realities. The series of mergers would reduce the number of parishes from 150 to roughly 65.
“I know that what you are being asked to do as priests and parishes, and what we’re being asked to do as a church in Peoria, is a difficult task,” continued Bishop Tylka. “I also know it will get us to a better place, a brighter future.”
Bishop Tylka thanked the priests for their commitment, cooperation, and leadership. He assured them “I am carrying you in my heart” and is praying for them as the Holy Spirit leads and guides the diocese through “a new moment in our life as priests and in the life of the church.”
“A BEAUTIFUL SPRINGTIME”
Offering words of advice and hope were two representatives from the Diocese of Pittsburgh. That diocese went through a similar pastoral planning process last decade that reduced the number of parishes from 188 to 60.
Father Paul Zywan, pastor of the newly formed Triumph of the Holy Cross Parish in Jefferson Hills, acknowledged the transition period was “definitely a purgatory.” His new parish was formed from the merger of four faith communities south of Pittsburgh.
“With a world of uncertainties ahead of you, I’m sure you have an uneasy feeling,” Father Zywan told the priests. But he added that “the storm has passed” and the challenge has led to “a beautiful springtime.”
“It’s not easy going through the process,” said Father Zywan, who at one point had to pause when he recalled weeping when he had to close one of the church buildings in his new parish. “I personally felt the pain of my people,” he said, acknowledging the love people have for their parishes and churches.
But the process, he said, “is not just a challenge but an opportunity in all aspects of priestly ministry, of service to our people, and appreciating the width and depth of the church.”
“What a beautiful springtime for you to not only recognize the importance of your vision of where you want to take God’s people into the future under the direction of your bishop,” said Father Zywan, “but then to actually create that change. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Among the words of advice Father Zywan offered to priests of the diocese were:
- “Don’t look back. The past is the past.” Father Zywan gave the analogy of trying to drive a car forward while looking only through the rear view mirror. “We have to look forward, out to the horizon, and not be focused just on what we’re preparing for now but the challenges our church will face moving into our future.” That calls for personal change.
- Be steeped in prayer. “I prayed every day, ‘God send into my life those who can help me accomplish your mission. I cannot do this on my own,” said Father Zywan. He added that his prayer life has never been stronger, and it has been “reinvigorating for me and my priesthood to start over again.”
- “Focus on the next generation.” Pour additional resources into reaching youth, young adults, and families not coming to Mass. “Not to the point of neglecting our seniors,” said Father Zywan, “but I think they, too, would be concerned their grandchildren know Jesus Christ, have a house of worship to go to, and a strong form of Catholic formation.”
- “Be sensitive to those hurting.” “Our people need us,” he said. “They may feel broken, and are looking to us for leadership, guidance. The title they honor us as ‘father’ is much more significant today.”
Joining Father Zywan was Bruno Bonacchi of the Catholic Leadership Institute, which is assisting the Diocese of Peoria through the “Growing Disciples” process. He was chief financial officer for the Diocese of Pittsburgh during its pastoral planning process and explained the demographic and cultural changes that led to the initiative there.
Bishop Tylka closed his remarks by citing what he considers the top priority of his life and ministry — making missionary disciples and building an evangelizing church.
“I’m going to work day and night to see that come to fruition,” he said.
Other speakers at the two-day gathering included lay evangelist Michael Gormley, who urged the priests to “personally disciple” their staffs and parishioners, especially as parishes grow larger. Several members of the diocesan Curia offered updates on their work, and Bishop Tylka celebrated Mass for both priests and the Curia at St. Mary’s Cathedral.