Citing population shifts, a decline in the number of priests and an “appalling” Mass attendance rate of 24 percent, Bishop Joseph A. Galante of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, has announced a “reconfiguration” that would reduce the diocese’s number of parishes from 124 to 66.
“What is not an option is inaction,” he said.
Under the planned reorganization, the diocese will have 38 merged parishes, three parish clusters involving six parishes, and 22 stand-alone parishes. A press release from the diocese says that some places will serve as year-round “worship sites,” while others will serve as secondary sites, mission sites, or overflow sites used to accommodate populations in shore areas during the peak tourist season.
Thirty parishes will close entirely.
“In all, up to 100 worship sites could be utilized by the 66 parishes, depending on the time of the year,” said a statement from the Diocese of Camden. It projects the reorganization to take place over the next one to two years.
Bishop Galante said the reconfiguration is necessary to strengthen and revitalize parish life. He said the move responds to population changes, a decline in religious practice, the declining number of priests and the need to advance pastoral priorities identified by Catholics at “Speak Up” sessions.
At present, 162 priests serve 124 parishes. The diocese expects fewer than 85 diocesan priests will be available for ministry in 2015 as fewer new ordinations fail to replace the number of retiring priests.
Mass attendance has fallen from its peak of 74 percent five decades ago to less than 24 percent. Further, Catholics have moved out of population centers where facilities located very close to each other now serve diminished Catholic populations.
"I know that these are serious challenges,” Bishop Galante said, “But I believe that far greater are the opportunities for our parishes to become dynamic life-giving centers for the practice of our faith if we take bold action together, confident that the Spirit is guiding us on our way.
“What is not an option is inaction. What is not an option at this time is leaving things alone and hoping for the best. We've tried that for too many years and it doesn't work."
At a press conference last Thursday, Bishop Galante said that today’s priests “have to be the enablers, the catalysts who will bring the laity in to share responsibility.” He said he tells seminarians the major role of the contemporary priest is the “formation of his collaborators.”
Bishop Galante also spoke of the perception that religious formation is primarily for children, saying that such formation has to be life-long. In addition, there is a need for better youth ministry and for ministry to young adults; “the forgotten 18-to-35s, who need to be drawn into parish life and eventually into leadership roles,” he said.
The bishop said that one goal is a better ministry to young married couples, which could include parish day-care centers for working parents and those who run errands.
"Then there's ministry to the elderly, some of whom need day care, and bereavement ministries. How do we respond to families that suffer losses?” he asked.
Bishop Galante hopes that merging and clustering parishes will help revitalize parishes by “combining human and financial resources in a way that will allow the newly configured parishes, under the direction of good pastoral leadership and staffing, to better serve the needs of the people.” He said it would be essential to add paid, professional staff to each parish to carry out key ministries and improve service to parishioners. Under the present configuration, he said, many parishes do not have the means to support such staff.
“I recognize that these changes will require sacrifice," Bishop Galante said. "The giving up of the familiar and the comfortable is never easy for any one of us.”
He said the diocese would help parishes transition to the new configuration. Over 100 trained facilitators, the diocese’s statement said, would “work with pastors and parishioners to deal with the feelings of loss that will occur as parishes adopt new structures.”
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the 69-year-old Bishop Galante told a press conference “I don't expect to be around to see the full flowering of what we want to do.
"But I hope to see the beginning," he quipped.