Year for Priests: Keys to a successful parish merger

By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series

The parish I serve as pastor has, within the last month, completed a merger. Since pastors around the country are facing similar situations (particularly in the Northeast), I thought that a recap of our own experience might be helpful and could save some stress.

I can’t claim credit myself for engineering what I think has been a successful transition; other people did far more work on this than I did. It helped, too, that the direction of the merger seemed to be evident from the start. A church one mile down the street from us was averaging 250 worshippers on a weekend, while our own church drew nearly 1,300, due largely to the outward flow of Catholics from the cities. (And the pastor of the closing church made things much easier by preparing his people well for the transition.)

When the mergers were first announced in January of this year (33 churches in the diocese were slated to close or merge — about 20 percent of our worship sites), our first move on the local level was to form a transition team, consisting of six representatives of each of our two parishes. That team’s first task was to help select a new name for the merged parish. The team proposed to the parishioners of both churches, in their bulletins on the same weekend, several possible choices, explaining the rationale for each one. Parishioners could then mark a ballot, selecting one of the choices offered or making their own suggestion.

A fair number of parishioners wanted some combination of the names of the two churches — St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. But the transition team saw from the ballots (and the accompanying comments) that any attempt to preserve the original patronesses would only perpetuate division. (Some comments argued that the older church, the one that was closing, should come first in the combined name; others argued, even more strongly, that the surviving church should predominate.) It was quickly evident that the unifying move was to pick a brand-new name, so that everyone would begin on an equal footing.

The team determined that a second vote should be held, asking parishioners to choose among the top three choices which did not involve the old names. In that re-vote, there was a clear winner — Mater Christi, a name which also had a local connotation because it was the name of the former diocesan seminary, which had been located in the same neighborhood.

Next came a letter from me, as pastor of the merged parish, to all registered members of both churches, telling them of the start of the new parish and inviting each of them to return a card indicating their desire to be a part of this new faith community, Mater Christi. That was followed by a letter to all ministers at both parishes — catechists, lectors, ushers, eucharistic ministers, home visitors, etc. — encouraging them to “re-up” for those ministries at the new parish.

Next came the signage on all parish buildings, a key factor in making people feel welcome, and all of that was changed quickly in preparation for the opening Mass for Mater Christi Parish.

Some of the furnishings from the closing church were moved to the surviving one — statuary, in particular, photos of former pastors, etc. — to ease the transition. A large artistic banner was fashioned and placed in the sanctuary, showing the facades of both churches cupped tenderly in the hands of the divine, with the name of the new parish displayed below.

The opening liturgy was joyful and unifying — a choir combined from the two churches, ministers from both parishes, a procession carrying sacramental records and communion vessels from St. Teresa’s and St. Catherine’s.

That liturgy was followed by a celebratory picnic on the church grounds, hosted by the confirmation candidates from both churches. (I’m still in the picnic director’s doghouse; I had told her to prepare for 200 people since, I said, a lot of people would go straight home after Mass to watch football; instead, 550 hungry people showed up — to my great surprise but also my delight.)

There is still, of course, some sadness over the merger and some adjustment yet to be made; it is not an easy thing to give up the place where, for years, you have known peace; where you were baptized and married perhaps; the church from which your parents were buried. But there are no public protests, no sit-ins and a good deal of enthusiasm for celebrating an enthusiastic liturgy in a full church. (Our average weekend attendance a year ago was 1,295; this month it has been 1,548.)

Much of that success is due to the two-and-a-half years of diocesan planning, with representatives of each parish meeting in clusters to suggest the new configurations and the bishop accepting virtually each of their recommendations. But the rest of the success is due to the resilience of Catholics who view things realistically, who adapt flexibly and who value their faith far more than their buildings.

Father Doyle, a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., has served as pastor of a large suburban parish for the last 17 years; he is also chancellor of the diocese for public information. Ordained in 1966, he has also been a high school religion teacher, editor of a diocesan newspaper, bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service, lawyer/lobbyist for the New York State Catholic Conference and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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Year for Priests: Saints in the making

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

Over the past few weeks, I have been meditating on Scripture passages about strength — the limited nature of our own strength and infinite nature of God’s strength.  Passages such as Second Corinthians 12:9 have almost become a daily mantra, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

As an engineer, my father drilled the demand for excellence into me, reminding me that excellence requires constant vigilance.  Over the years, those ideas have led me to a great many successes in life, but I have also had my fair share of failures.

As a priest, I have found my place on the ledge between success and failure to be a constant reminder of my own need for Christ’s strength.  I believe that mediocrity is the antithesis of the Gospel because it rarely requires God’s action in our own lives.

This past week, my sophomores turned in the final papers on The Crucible.  Knowing that I have high standards, I allow my students to e-mail their papers to me no later than two days prior to the due date for “grade-free comments.”  While it requires an enormous amount of work on my part, they learn more through the individual consultative process.

There a few students who struggle, but one in particular remained unresponsive to the curriculum.  When I questioned him in the past, he tells me that he simply hates English and makes no attempt to do the work.  After several discussions with his mother, I was happy to see him turn in an advanced copy of his paper.  Not to my surprise, it needed a lot of work, and I commented accordingly.

His final draft was much improved and far different from his original, so I did a quick check online and found his entire paper had been plagiarized.  This eventually led to a conversation with his mother, who told me that he had been working on the advanced copy for a whole night — more than she had ever seen him work on any one assignment before.  When he received my comments, she said he just shut down.  She never tried to dissuade me from punishment, but did want me to know that she thought his actions were an attempt at self-preservation.

When I spoke with the young man the following day, I was as hard on him as the situation required.  As his eyes started with fill up, he explained to me that he really wanted to improve but felt as if it was impossible to meet my expectations.

I believed him and paused, realizing that his mother was correct.

As we spoke inappropriate and appropriate responses to such demands, I reminded him that our integrity is shaped from adversity.  All of us find ourselves hampered by situations we do not like, but that is when we dig deep and find God’s own strength to carry us when our own strength runs out.

The lack of effort earlier in the year requires that this young man now work doubly hard to close the gap, but he can so long as he remains focused on the process rather than the result.  During this time when we remember the saints, I think we are reminded that we only become saints relying on God’s strength one day at a time.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May and is teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.

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Year for Priests: Rome as evangelization machine

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — The recent announcement that the Vatican will allow Anglicans to continue their “traditional spiritual practices” in the Catholic Church has started people thinking: Catholicism now has a formal way to accommodate a married priesthood for a very specific group of people. What more might unfold? Whatever the long-term outcome, this announcement is a milestone in the Year for Priests.

It’s no coincidence that next year’s beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Gordon Brown’s invitation to the pope to visit Britain and easing the journey to Rome for interested Anglicans have all come about together. Work in many departments of the Vatican has converged, setting the stage for a spectacular new era in ecumenism.

On the far horizon is the speculation that Cardinal Newman could be named a doctor of the church, underscoring his contributions to “development of doctrine” and conscience. Whether Europe is ready or not, plans for its re-evangelization are on track.

Rome, in its way, is a 500-year-old evangelization machine. The buildings and art created as a response to the Protestant critique still call to people who are searching and create a mood of reflection. Just before I arrived in Rome, I met an industrial psychologist who was a Christian but now follows a Native American practice. He told me that, when he went to the Vatican, sunbeams from the dome of the church hit Michelangelo’s Pieta and brought tears to his eyes.

A week ago I heard from two nuns, dressed in habits, who were stopped on the street by a Japanese tourist. She wanted to know, could they possibly spare a few moments to explain Christianity to her? Yesterday a Syrian found his way to our English-speaking church (he knew no Italian) asking the same question. He told me he had no particular faith, but he had been impressed with the Syrian Orthodox while in his own country and now, before he had to leave the country because of a document problem, he wanted to find out more. He asked his questions urgently, “And, so, Jesus was the Son of God?” “He promised eternal life?” Searching Americans approach the faith issue differently. One recently told me he “gave up on God” when the Supreme Being did not cure his depression and taking a little pill did. I said there may come a time when something can’t be fixed, then what?

Rome Diary

Oct 3 – A wedding in a secret chapel of the Pantheon brings me within range of the seventh-century icon that is preserved there. The dark, rough plank has the serene Mary holding, with both hands, a child who looks out upon the world with wonder and apprehension. Later icon painters would have to follow strict rules on portrayal but here the artist was free to express exactly what came from his heart. The image has survived so much danger and destruction — what better image to have before two people ready to put their lives in each others’ care? When emperor Phocas agreed to give the church ownership of the Pantheon (609) it was a way both of saving the most complete remnant of the Roman Empire and also a dramatic statement of Christian triumph – the building formerly dedicated to the gods would now be dedicated to Mary and the Christian martyrs. As I leave, the sacristan reminds me it is the 1,400th anniversary of the Pantheon as a church and the pope has offered a plenary indulgence to all who attend Mass here during the month of October. The building is so old and well-loved, this seems the perfect anniversary gift – complete forgiveness of punishment for past sins.

Oct. 3 – Today at school the second grade is learning about the Eucharist. Some of them are, that is. The Muslim children are out of the room at another activity, except for one boy who carefully explains to me that he does not have to answer any of my questions because he is Muslim. My lesson is based on a picture of the sanctuary. I point to something and ask the class what it is. I go through one or two things and on my third question the Muslim boy can stand it no longer. “That’s the tabernacle!” he declares. And he is right.

Fresco (detail) of Santa Susanna

Fresco (detail) of Santa Susanna

Oct 8 — It’s been almost a year since a group of pilgrims from Sardinia visited the Church of Santa Susanna. This devotion goes back to the time when slaves of Susanna’s household fled to Sardinia to find a new life as workers in the island’s silver and salt mines. Today a group arrives from Torre Santa Susanna (near modern Brindisi), the town where the freedmen and guards of the same household took refuge 1,700 years ago. Sometimes, young Susanna seems an insignificant saint among the city’s so many other accomplished luminaries. These pilgrims bring me back to the fervor of unwavering devotion as I recall that our Sardinian visitors had even sung a hymn to Santa Susanna handed down to them over the centuries.

Father Thomas J. Holahan, CSP, was ordained for the Paulist Fathers in 1977. Since 2006 he has served as vice-rector at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. This church was designated for Americans in Rome by the Vatican in 1922. He is also chaplain to Marymount International School. Previously, he has worked in campus ministry at the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Berkeley) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also served as communications director for the dioceses of Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.

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Year for Priests: A reflection on black spirituality

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

As a result of the current Synod of Bishops for Africa in Rome, there is a renewed interest in the African church.  While many Americans feel, at best, a distant connection to this culture, I have spent several years immersed in the African-American community and believe much can be learned from their expression of faith and spirituality.

Prior to my association with the Basilians, I taught in a high school that was predominantly black (comprised of slave descendants, Africans, Haitians and some South Americans).  Eventually, I also found myself worshiping in this community and sought to learn about its spirituality.  As an extrovert who often felt out of sync with the more subdued liturgies to which I was accustomed, I embarked on a quest to find an expression of faith that would fulfill and challenge me.  I found all that I was looking for and more in the black Catholic Church.

In the U.S. bishops’ document, What We Have Seen and Heard, black spirituality is defined as joyful, holistic, communal and contemplative — each one representing a “pillar” of this expression.  Each is combined with a rich expression of song, a deep-rooted love for the Word of God, and a sense of urgency to evangelize.  Underneath all of this lies a deep sense of the paschal mystery.  I found that black spirituality is seemingly synonymous with suffering and the ability to overcome it.

One of my spiritual guides taught me that black spirituality is an expression more than a thought.  It is a song before a letter.  It is a movement before a stillness.  Black spirituality, as I understand it thus far, is neither accepting nor rejecting — it is simply being.

Of course, I do not believe these traits are exclusive to one spirituality or another, but I do believe uniqueness is often created by emphasis.  People are longing to hear a joyful noise again, to express their thankfulness to their Creator with their whole being. They long for a community which accepts — rather than judges — them where they are, and they long to find an authentic understanding and meaning to our suffering.  While I am not naive enough to believe these ideals can always be found in any one place, I do believe that the expression of faith found in the black Catholic Church fills many of the voids we desperately long to have filled.

In the end, I believe our greatest contributions come from neither black nor white, but from the gray — our ability to share and accept these gifts from each other.  During my experience in African-American communities, I met many who were skeptical of me because of the harm they experienced from people imposing one expression of faith on another.  As a result, gifts are kept hidden and conversations remain mute.  People are afraid of losing all that they have gained or what new ideas may be found, but I see so much hope and joy in the area between African and European.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May and is teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.

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Year for Priests: A hospital bedside marriage

By Maryknoll Father Michael J. Snyder
One in a series

DAR ES SALAAM, Tananzia — I had been away from Tanzania for one month enjoying a vacation with family at home.  The highlight of the vacation was presiding at the marriage ceremony for my niece.  Joined by over 200 guests, it was a great occasion for family and friends at a beautiful church and reception hall in New Jersey.  It was a day filled with celebration and joy.

Upon returning to Dar es Salaam I continued with ministry at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences where I serve as the Catholic chaplain.  On my first Sunday back, after celebrating Mass at our university hospital chapel, there were some people who wished to see me.  They had a sick person who they feared was in danger of death.

The patient was a woman in her mid-30s.  Her husband and two relatives came with a request.  The woman, Anna, has suffered with stomach cancer for several years.  She has received treatments and has been in and out of hospitals throughout the ordeal.  Although they have one child, Anna and her husband, Valentine, have not yet had their marriage blessed in the church, a condition so common in Tanzania today.  Valentine, fearing that Anna may soon die, came to request that I come to the ward and bless the marriage.

After gathering some details I went with Valentine to see Anna.  She was indeed very ill, nothing but bare bones.  But, she was conscious and alert.  I asked Valentine to sit on the bed next to his wife.  I explained to Anna that I had come to bless her marriage.  She was grateful.  Some nurses gathered around the bed and, together with the two family members, I conducted a marriage service.  While beginning the prayers in Swahili I had an immediate flashback to my niece’s wedding of just one week ago!  As Valentine and Anna exchanged their vows I could feel a lump in my throat.  When it came to rings, of course there weren’t any.  So I did some quick thinking and improvised, asking that each simply repeat these words: “Anna (Valentine), accept my word of promise as a sign of my love and fidelity to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The two weddings were so different.  Instead of a beautiful church in New Jersey, our service was conducted in a hospital ward in Dar es Salaam on a bed with sheets stained with Anna’s pain and suffering.  From the richest to among one of the poorest countries in the world I was struck by the contrast!  Throughout the service I sensed the tears coming to my eyes and had to work to hold them back.  After the wedding ceremony, Anna and Valentine received holy Communion for the first time since their marriage eight years ago.  As the service ended, despite the contrasting scenes, I realized there was something so much in common with my niece’s wedding: it was that moment of great joy and celebration when Anna and Valentine were announced husband and wife.  As they held hands on the bed, those present shrilled the sound of ululation, the traditional African expression of joy. Anna’s constant physical pain was suddenly eased by the joy of love shared between them.  In taking care of his wife, Valentine was a living witness to the promises they shared: “I promise to be faithful to you in good times and bad, in sickness and in health.  I will love and cherish you all the days of my life.”

Two days later, Anna passed away.  How grateful I am for this brief encounter with Anna and Valentine.  May she rest in peace!

Fr. Michael J. Snyder is a member of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, commonly known as Maryknoll. A native of New Jersey, he was ordained in 1979 and assigned to work in Tanzania, East Africa. In addition to various parish assignments, Fr. Mike served as the regional superior for the Maryknoll priests, brothers, and lay missioners working in Tanzania (1989-1995). In 1996 he returned to the U.S. to serve on the General Council for Maryknoll until 2002. Fr. Mike also served as vocation director for Maryknoll for seven years. In 2007 he returned for missionary service in Tanzania where he resides today.

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Year for Priests: Keeping the focus on Jesus’ compassion

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — Last night I was shocked when, discussing the recently restored version of “Godfather III,” no one agreed that the church was treated unfairly. While the story touches on the Vatican bank scandal of the 1980s, my ire went up when the Godfather, Michael Corleone, received a papal knighthood from the archbishop of New York. Soon it was clear where this was going, the “favor” would be repaid by getting the Godfather to (unknowingly) assist in the bank fraud. The cynical conclusion is that the church may even be more corrupt than the crime syndicate Michael Corleone was trying to step away from.

It makes the news and it makes for good stories. But the truth is far different. At this point in history, it is the church that stands against many of the “acceptable” behaviors of modern times. Notwithstanding the hopes and vision of Vatican II, the work of the church is engaging the people of God is the paradoxical rightness of the Beatitudes. It has taken a financial meltdown to convince nations that nurturing struggling economies is to the benefit of all and the right to life is still a question mark for some, if a personal sacrifice is involved.

Here in Italy we had a national moment of silence for six Italian paratroopers who were killed in a terrorist bombing in Afghanistan. Some non-Italians wondered out loud why this was necessary when “so many Americans have died.” Excuse me, but is not every life worthy of mourning, especially in a country that was reluctant to become involved in the conflict, but did so out of duty to its agreements with NATO?

It seems to me that the work of the priest is to constantly, with patience and understanding, lift the sights of those who have become weary or confused about the key role of compassion in human life. Jesus dramatically told the story of the “non-believer” (the Samaritan) who showed compassion and so became an excellent example of virtue. Making the effort to “cross the road” and experience what another is going through is still the hallmark of a vibrant faith and religion.

My efforts to do this on a small scale were thwarted this past week when I attempted to visit one of our library volunteers who was recovering from a stroke. The clinic she was in was not easy for me to find and it took 90 minutes to get there by bus and then a rather dangerous walk on the heavily trafficked Via Appia Nuova. I managed to get there during visiting hours, but that was why she was off in a side courtyard with visitors and not in her room. After calling her name and walking most of the grounds with two nurses, we gave up our search and I returned home. Was it a waste of time? I think not. Word got to her that I went through the “trouble” of the visit and we had a good phone conversation the next day. It’s simple: Just “showing up” is worth something, even when the stated goal has been missed. Relationships can be built on such “unproductive” times.

Rome Diary

Sept. 25 – There is a symbiotic relationship between weddings at the Vatican and the crowds of tourists. Most brides cannot get everyone they would like to come over to Europe for the wedding. The tourists act as replacements, gathering excitedly around the designated “wedding chapel,” applauding as the bride emerges, even taking picture of … who? For a moment the strangers become a big, happy family celebrating a major step in life.

Sept. 27 – Two small discoveries ruffle the day: I notice that the smooth white stones in some old terracotta flowerpots are pure Carrara marble, extravagant. Then, in a search for lemon juice, I am told, “We don’t have this thing. We like our fruits and vegetables very fresh.” What about your tomato paste in tubes? I think, but do not say.

Sept. 28 – I am beginning to notice the prevalence of angels here. Not just cherubs, but “serious” ones like the large bronze on top of Castle St. Angelo and the ever-popular image, by Guido Reni (left) of St. Michael the Archangel vanquishing the devil. At the same time I notice people citing miraculous coincidences. A teacher links the finding of a spring on school grounds with future enrollment growth; a seminarian believes the death of the Pope John Paul II occurred on the eve of the Sunday after Easter “because he loved that Sunday.” I am reminded of a nice person I met in Berkeley years ago who said, “You never know so I believe in everything.”

Father Thomas J. Holahan, CSP, was ordained for the Paulist Fathers in 1977. Since 2006 he has served as vice-rector at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. This church was designated for Americans in Rome by the Vatican in 1922. He is also chaplain to Marymount International School. Previously, he has worked in campus ministry at the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Berkeley) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also served as communications director for the dioceses of Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.

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Year for Priests: Recovering from our mistakes

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

This past week, my English students took their first major exam, which I had graded and posted to our electronic grade book prior to the start of the weekend. Since this grade book can be viewed by parents through a secure login, a few of my students found their weekend far less interesting than they would have liked.

One student, who I shall name Steve, bombed the exam and as a result is now failing my class. His parents grounded him for the weekend and from the biggest football game of the year. They also instructed Steve to e-mail me and basically beg for a way to improve his grade.

Steve is a good kid but, like so many, just hasn’t realized his full potential yet. When I received his e-mail, it was very clear to me that he would not make this mistake again as his language was abundantly apologetic and remorseful. I almost felt sorry for him (though he did bring this on himself) and quickly e-mailed him an additional assignment. When I returned home from the football game, I found his paper waiting for me since he was instructed by his parents to write the paper during game time. I responded via e-mail, asked him to make a few corrections and, in his response to me, suggest how I should apply this extra credit.

Once again, he responded with remorse and stated that any amount I was willing to apply to his exam grade would be appreciated. However, I wanted him to be specific — how much should I apply? I instructed him to be fair, but to be confident in his own effort, and then I wrote him not to apologize anymore. The lesson has been learned and it is time to move on.

No doubt, Steve was taken aback by my request to name his own score, but it is a regular practice of mine to require students to grade themselves — honestly. I used to have a confessor who used the same practice in confession, asking me to name my own penance. If I was too hard (or too easy) on myself, he would tell me, but usually he thought I was right on target. Every now and then I would try and weasel my way out and have him do the work for me, to which he would always respond that I knew myself better than he did. He reminded me that I knew both what I needed to grow and what I needed to do in order to let go of these things that hold me down. No one else can do this but me.

Now that I am in the confessional, I always remind people that the hardest part about the sacrament of reconciliation is not voicing your sins out loud (though it usually feels like it) but leaving those sins behind and walking out the door — feeling truly forgiven.

Ultimately forgiveness is the thing that is hardest to give ourselves. I have no doubt that Steve will do much better in my class, not just because of the consequences, but (hopefully) because he named forgiveness for himself. As for the rest of us: May we have the courage recognize when we are wrong, and what it takes to make it right and let it go.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May.

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