Diocese Forms Planning Office

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Springfield MA]
December 2, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - An office of Pastoral Planning that will oversee future parish closings, mergers, yokings and new churches has been established in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

The creation of the office, which was announced yesterday by the Springfield diocese's bishop, the Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell, will make recommendations on future changes as the diocese deals with an expected continued decline in the number of priests, fewer Catholics in the diocese and shifting demographics.

The Rev. John J. Bonzagni, who was named director of the office, said he doesn't expect what happened in Boston when the closing of 65 parishes was announced earlier this year to occur in the Springfield diocese.

"There are major differences between what occurred in Boston and what is happening here," said Bonzagni, addressing the takeover by laity of several Boston churches that were scheduled to close.

Unlike Boston, which announced all the closings at once, the Springfield diocese isn't working toward a one-time announcement of multiple closings.

The Springfield diocese has been continually updating plans and making changes during the past 20 years as the number of active priests has dropped from about 350 in 1984 to 150 or so today in the Springfield diocese, according to Bonzagni and previously released information.

In the past 10 years, the need for at least 30 pastors has been eliminated through closings, yokings and mergers that have affected 50 or so parishes in the Springfield diocese. There are currently 121 parishes in the diocese.

Instead, the diocese is currently working with parishes in the 10 deaneries, the geographic regions in the diocese, where it is looking at five-year and 10-year plans.

"In deanery meetings, we have been asking people, 'If, in five years there is one less priest in your deanery, what are the options you want to look at?'" Bonzagni said.

Bonzagni said the planning has included lay people as well as clergy.

"We would like to tap into what people have learned in parishes that have been through this already," said Bonzagni.

The creation of the Pastoral Planning Office is a response for the need for more consistency in developing plans, Bonzagni said.

Bonzagni and other diocesan officials have been developing plans with the presumption that there will be 35 fewer priests in the diocese in 2010. The average age of priests today in the diocese is around 58.

The diocese, besides having fewer priests, also has fewer lay people. While the population of the diocese, which is comprised of Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties, has grown slightly in the past 20 years, the number of Catholics has dropped from 351,181 in 1984 to 240,730 in 2004, according to church statistics. That represents a 31 percent drop.

Meanwhile, there have been increases in the Catholic population in certain areas, such as Belchertown and Southampton. St. Francis Parish of Belchertown last month opened a new church to accommodate the growth. Also, the number of Latinos has increased substantially in urban areas such as Springfield and Holyoke.

Bonzagni said the planning process at the parish level helps raise questions about "What is priesthood?" and "What is ministry?'" and enables lay people to utilize their skills in developing a new form of parish with maybe a shared priest, possibly an assigned deacon and a lay pastoral minister.

"This is all about ministry. It isn't about buildings," said Bonzagni, adding that he understands how emotionally attached people become to their parishes and churches.

The diocesan Web site will soon be placing online a series of maps showing the location of parishes, missions and chapels and pastoral plans as they are developed.

Bonzagni, who has worked on pastoral planning with several previous bishops, works as a member of the Tribunal Office. He will continue to do that work.

Bonzagni was the subject of a diocese announcement also last month when the Review Board said an allegation of sexual abuse made against him was unsubstantiated. A civil suit filed in connection with the allegation was one of 46 settled by the diocese in August. The priest has denied the accusation.


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