Bishop's Letter to Map out
Future Mission of Diocese

By Kathryn Marchocki
The Union Leader [New Hampshire]
Downloaded March 18, 2004

Facing a diverse, growing and shifting Roman Catholic population in New Hampshire with fewer priests to minister to them, Bishop John B. McCormack will lay out a future vision for the diocese in a letter to be distributed in all parishes this weekend, several sources said this week.

The pastoral letter addresses the church’s mission in facing these challenges and asks laity to participate in the process of defining parish life in the future.

“It lays out in very broad-stroke terms the themes of parish life that we will be discussing . . . through the end of 2005,” said a source who saw a draft of the letter.

But, unlike the reconfiguration in the Boston archdiocese that will involve the closure of a substantial number of parishes, the letter does not recommend closing churches.

“That’s not part of the discussion at this point. The discussion at this point is about the mission of the parishes and the diocese . . . before we get into discussing how to organize ourselves. But, looking toward the future, the diocese may change how it organizes itself,” the source said.

“There is some concern that there is a list being published (of churches that will close). There isn’t a list,” he said.

The diocese yesterday released the letter to the media provided it remain embargoed until Friday. The Union Leader yesterday declined to accept the embargoed material while the newspaper was working on this story.

Several Catholics said their pastors raised issues at last weekend’s Masses that will be addressed in the letter.

According to parishioners, pastors said the key issue is how to minister to the future needs of the diocese with fewer priests and an aging priesthood, and they raised the prospect of one pastor serving three or four parishes.

One Manchester area pastor said his understanding is the bishop will lay out in broad, general terms the challenges ahead for the diocese and open it up to the people for comment.

“I don’t think this is the same (as Boston). It’s a whole different approach,” said the pastor, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It’s a language of mission. How do we — given the fact that there will no doubt be fewer clergy and there is a growing and shifting Catholic population in New Hampshire — how do we be the Catholic church in New Hampshire?” he said.

There are 327,353 Catholics in the diocese, which encompasses the entire state, the diocese reported in its stewardship report last December. It has 120 parishes and 216 priests, of whom 116 are active.

Three years ago, while dealing with long-range planning issues that would lead to church closings in Nashua and Manchester, Auxiliary Bishop Francis J. Christian said half of the then-active 134 priests would reach the retirement age of 68 within 10 years.

The diocese has been grappling with issues raised in the pastoral letter for at least two decades, the pastor said.

Shifting demographics and the priest shortage already have resulted in some church closings and mergers during the last decade. In other cases, parishes have been “twinned,” a process in which a pastor serves more than one parish.

Most mergers and twinnings so far have occurred in inner-city areas.

“Look at the growth in the diocese. Almost all the new parishes in the past 10 years are along the (Massachusetts) border,” the pastor said.

The letter addresses a Catholic population that has become much more geographically, ethnically, economically and culturally diverse, the source who saw the draft said.

There is a “growing diversity of the population in the state and the demographics are not even,” he said, noting the church “is just as responsible for where only a few people live in the rural areas and where a lot of people live, which is our suburban areas.”

The letter also will ask for lay input on how to strengthen parish life, including cooperation among laity and clergy, developing vocations and faith life for youth and adults, the source said.


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