By Tom Davidson
Beaver County Times
Friday, May 20, 2016
PITTSBURGH — The shepherd of the region’s Catholic population is calling for his flock to be visionaries and missionaries.
In doing so, Bishop David A. Zubik is asking the more than 600,000 members of the Pittsburgh Diocese to answer tough questions about their faith and the future of their churches.
“I don’t know all of the answers, but I do know the answers are out there,” Zubik, an Ambridge native, said Friday at the annual diocesan media breakfast in Lawless Hall of St. Mary of Mercy Church in downtown Pittsburgh.
Zubik is also challenging Catholics to share their faith with others, mostly by example, to spur the church to regain members it has lost and to encourage non-Catholics to take up the faith.
The planning initiative, called On Mission for the Church Alive, goes hand-in-hand with a capital campaign, On Campaign for the Church Alive, that garnered more than $230 million in pledges last yea<UrlBlockedError.aspx>r. Both projects are part of Zubik’s effort to lead the diocese into a brighter future.
Growing up in Ambridge, Zubik remembered when the town has seven steel mills 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,” he said.
It’s also a town that’s declined with the times. The mills are mostly gone from Ambridge, and there’s one Catholic church, Good Samaritan, that serves the town’s faithful.
Ambridge remains a town with a vibrant Catholic population, but like others in the diocese, it’s declining.
In 2000, there were 753,147 Catholics in the diocese, with 246,896 attending Mass. There were also 338 priests.
In 2015, there were 632,138 Catholics, with 149,215 attending Mass and 225 priests.
By 2025, the number of priests is projected to be 112. Currently, there are 199 parishes in the diocese, which serves Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Lawrence and Washington counties.
Reversing those declines and dealing with the reality of fewer priests available to lead parishes are two of the aims in crafting the plan for the future. It’s also in line with Pope Francis’ call for Catholics to live their faith, Zubik said.
“That is why I’ve called for our entire diocese to be On Mission for the Church Alive!” Zubik said.
“I am asking every Catholic to look at his or her community as a mission field. This will require collaboration, courage and compassion as we work together and dream big about how we can best be church in a world that is very different from our grandparents’ day,” he said. “How do we mobilize our resources, many of which are based on patterns from the 1950s, for our communities of today?”
The diocese is divided into 21 districts, and it is at this level that planning will be done to come up with the best ways to serve the population, Zubik said.
“In late summer, our priests will receive working drafts of several possible models for the structure and staffing of future ministry in their district,” he said. “These models will show options for reaching out in service to our people with varying numbers of parishes, church buildings, schools, and different configurations of clergy and staff members.”
Zubik likened the models to floor plans for a home.
“What you see on paper isn’t the finished version,” he said.
The end result answer will be “what is in fact the art of the possible,” Zubik said.
Will it mean some churches will be closed?
“That’s a very real possibility,” Zubik said.
But churches aren’t meant to be empty monuments to the past, Zubik said.
The task of crafting the plan isn’t that of preparing a death certificate, he said. Instead, it’s to fire up new life into the evolving church in Pittsburgh.
It’s also a call for Catholics to look at their faith as more than a “membership card,” Zubik said, and to instead view their beliefs in Jesus as something they live.“The church is not a building,” he said.