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Grand Island plans for fewer priests

(This is the first in a series of Focus stories on what is happening in dioceses throughout the United States as they face the consequences of the priest shortage.)

By Lori Ashyk

The Diocese of Grand Island, Nebraska is confronting the problem of the priest shortage head-on, discovering its challenges and its opportunities.

Fr. Ed Cortney, chair of the Presbyteral Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council in Grand Island, said its planning process began in 1999 with the acknowledgment of the priest shortage. Since then, the diocese has held hearings in each parish in the diocese, hired consultants to help in diocesan planning for the next 10 years, formed steering committees and subcommittees, and is about to start the work of an implementation committee.

According to the diocesan publication about the plan, Bishop Lawrence McNamara had an "overwhelming concern" for how to meet the religious and spiritual needs of the people of God with the diminishing number of priests available for full-time ministry. His analysis suggested that the current diocesan and parish structures could sustain the loss of a maximum of four priests. After that threshold was reached, the plan said, "it will be necessary to initiate a new approach to ministry to Catholics in western Nebraska."

The most positive outcome of the process so far, said Fr. Cortney, has been the emergence of lay leadership. Lay people coordinated many of the pastoral planning tasks, and they will continue to be involved in leadership of the plan's implementation.

The process has been an opportunity "for lay leadership to take its rightful place in the world," he said. Fr. Cortney noted that two of the four subcommittees (which were formed around parish realignment, discernment, pastoral formation and spirituality) are headed by lay people.

Fr. Cortney said the process of discerning where the Grand Island Diocese is headed has been difficult, particularly because there haven't been too many role models to follow. "You don't find a comparable diocese doing comparable things," he said.

Grand Island is grappling honestly with problems confronting many dioceses throughout the country. While the priest shortage is common to nearly all of them, strategies for dealing with the situation must take into account the nature of the communities served by each.

Part of the challenge facing Grand Island is its geography. The diocese is 125 miles long and sits in two time zones. It already includes several mission parishes, where one priest serves more than one congregation, and distance is an issue. Grand Island's pastoral plan calls for a pilot model of a regional parish, but does not envision the creation of mega-parishes where stadium-type churches are built to accommodate huge Sunday crowds. Instead, it says that the "rural context" of the area must be honored.

Its pastoral plan has stated: "Our U.S. culture places value on material wealth and contends that bigger is better. In contrast, our faith base contends that bigger comes with responsibility to honor small places."

The pastoral plan's statement of visions and actions include: assisting the people of the Grand Island Diocese in the development of a liturgical spirituality; and helping create a new vision of parish which calls for an "expanded role of the laity, more paid, accountable positions at both the Parish and Diocesan levels, new Parish structures including regional, dual membership in non-Eucharistic and Eucharistic parishes, and focus on adult education with articulation of what it means to be Catholic."

Fr. Cortney said Grand Island has acknowledged that some parishes will be without Sunday Eucharist at times, and some parishes may have to close. The diocese, according to the pastoral plan, is calling for a ritual to be created "that is sensitive to the needs of people affected by changing parish status…the pastoral approach will validate feelings of loss while bringing focus to the opportunity provided by the new alignment."

The plan also includes several ways to develop pastoral leadership among the laity. A Pastoral Formation committee was created in August and plans to hold diocesan-wide workshops early this year (2002). New training programs for pastoral leadership are to be in place by the spring.

FutureChurch has published a new Parish Dialogue Supplement to its Future of Priestly Ministry project. The supplement includes U.S. Bishops' Statistics on the Priest Shortage, an interview with Fr. Donald Cozzens, author of "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," articles on the Eucharist and the Sensus Fidelium, and a parish study guide on how your parish or small faith community might discuss the impact of the priest shortage and the increase in lay ecclesial ministers in your area.


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