By Tom Davidson, Beaver County Times
Oct 28, 2016
As Nobel laureate Bob Dylan famously wrote, “The times, they are a-changin’.”
In the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, those changing times have become a call for action. Last year, Bishop David A. Zubik launched On Mission for the Church Alive!, an initiative that calls the faithful to respond to the changing face of the diocese, which serves more than 630,000 people in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Lawrence and Washington counties.
When Dylan wrote the iconic lyric in the 1960s, nearly 900,000 Catholics worshiped at more than 300 parishes in the diocese and they were served by about 600 priests.
Four decades later, in 2000, there were about 750,000 Catholics at 218 parishes served by 338 priests.
The numbers have continued to decline, partially reflected by the overall loss of population in the region, and in 2015 there were 632,138 Catholics in the diocese who worshiped at 192 parishes served by 225 priests.
Zubik wants to reverse that trend and inspire Catholics to share their faith, by reaching out to those who have fallen away from the church and by attracting new people to it.
The bishop also has to deal with the reality that the number of priests available to serve the diocese is rapidly declining. By 2025, there will be 112 active priests, according to projections supplied by the diocese.
“This is why I’ve called for our entire diocese to be On Mission for the Church Alive!,” Zubik said in May, when he detailed the start of the initiative.
“I don’t know all the answers, but I know the answers are out there,” he said then.
In the last two weeks, members of parishes in Beaver County have been coming together to provide the next step in the process: their responses to models worked out by the diocese that show how parishes might be realigned.
“Parishioners are learning about draft models that propose bringing parishes together to form new faith communities that offer vibrant worship, effective ministries and community outreach. We need to shift our resources from maintaining underutilized buildings to strengthening our relationship with Jesus and growing the Catholic Church in southwestern Pennsylvania,” diocesan spokesman Bob DeWitt said.
“No decisions have been made yet,” Zubik said in a video message that was played at these meetings.
That statement was a mantra at the meetings, repeated several times, including on Thursday when about 50 people from Good Samaritan Parish in Ambridge and St. John the Baptist Parish in Baden gathered at Good Samaritan.
Zubik mandated the meetings be held in the sanctuaries of the churches to include God’s presence in the proceedings, which laid out for some what will be difficult decisions that will need to be made over the course of the next year.
“People need to believe that we need their input and that no decisions have been made,” said Martha Piontek, an active member of Good Samaritan. “It’s hard because we are a merged parish already.”
Ambridge can be seen as a microcosm of the issues facing the diocese, and it’s also Zubik’s hometown.
He remembers the time when there were seven steel mills in the area and seven Catholic churches.
“We were a town that knew the value of hard work. We were a town that knew the meaning of deep faith,” Zubik said in March.
But the town’s population has declined.
Good Samaritan was formed in 1994 by the merger of the five parishes that then existed in Ambridge: Christ the King, Divine Redeemer, Holy Trinity, St. Stanislaus and St. Veronica.
Twenty-two years after the merger, “it’s just starting to get good here now,” Piontek said.
“We’re going to upset the apple cart,” she said. “But I think it’s wonderful that we do get (to have) input, and hopefully the decision will be a good one that we can all live with in a couple of years. It’s hard letting go of things in your comfort zone, but we’ve done it once, so I’m sure we can do it again.”
Beaver County’s 14 parishes could be combined into three or five parishes, according to the models the diocese presented at the recent meetings.
Input from parishioners was gathered at the meetings, and those who can’t attend can provide their comments through forms available at their churches or online at http://onmissionchurchalive.org/.
Those comments will be taken into account through 2017, and by December of next year recommendations will be presented to Zubik, who will announce a final plan in early 2018.