Big changes are happening in the parishes and schools of the Archdiocese
Around the same time next year, religious life will change in one way or another for almost every Catholic priest, parishioner, and student in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Parishes that have been autonomous for decades or more will be grouped into “families” supervised by a single parish priest. These new parish families will then revise the times and locations of Mass, combine church programs and activities, and make tough decisions about the future of Catholic schools.
No final decision has been made on what exactly the Archdiocese will look like a year from now. But planning for the reorganization, known as the “Beacons of Light,” has been underway for months and promises to bring dramatic changes.
Church officials have declined to discuss their plans until the first version of the overhaul is released this fall, which is also the time when grassroots Catholics will have a chance to speak out.
There is no secret, however, as to why the change is coming. Documents on the Archdiocese’s website highlight “declining religious practice”, “demographic changes” and “fewer priests.”
Catholics have learned for months from church bulletins and online updates that the purpose of Beacons of Light is to address these issues and make their parishes more stable and vibrant for years to come. In a short video posted to the Archdiocese’s website, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr said the purpose of the reorganization is to endow the church with “everything it needs to lead people to holiness, and by holiness to salvation “.
But Schnurr’s video is short on the details, which has sparked some apprehension about what the beacons of light will mean for their parishes and schools.
For Catholics, parishes are often the center of social and cultural life, not just religious life. Schools, sports teams, festivals, bingo nights, fish fries, Bible study groups and a host of other activities have linked generations of Catholics to their parishes.
Tinkering with that bond is a delicate matter, as church leaders have learned time and time again over the years when parishes merged or schools closed. To do so in the 19 counties of the archdiocese, as proposed by Beacons of Light, will be a heavy burden.
“I see it as a struggle,” said Janie Allen-Blue, a member of the Bond Hill Resurrection Church, which was part of a four parish merger more than a decade ago. “I’m not trying to be negative, but the parishioners didn’t offer beacons of light.”
The attendance of the masses and the drop in registrations
Like many Catholics, however, she knows the challenges are real.
Nationally, the number of priests has fallen from 59,200 to 35,500 over the past 50 years, and the number of parishes has grown from 18,200 to 16,700, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate of the ‘Georgetown University.
But the decline is not happening uniformly. As new parishes spring up in booming areas like Atlanta and Dallas, places like Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago have seen Catholics leave the city or abandon neighborhood parishes for the suburbs. As it happened, church leaders tried to adapt, often with structural reorganizations like Beacons of Light.
“It’s very common,” said Reverend Thomas Gaunt, director of the Georgetown center. “There isn’t just one way to do this.”
A 177-page report produced this year for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati explained what the church is facing here: Mass attendance fell 22.5% between 2010 and 2019, Catholic school enrollment fell by 14% during the same period, and the number of priests, which had plummeted for decades, is expected to drop a further 18% by 2031.
These trends began before the COVID-19 pandemic dealt another blow to church attendance and forced the cancellation of popular fundraising events, such as festivals.
They also came as the demographics of the region continued to change unfavorably for the Archdiocese. The Catholic population here is aging – baptisms have declined 19% over the past decade – and the Catholic share of the population has increased from 14.2% to 11.9%.
The report, which church officials will use to guide their work on the beacons of light, does not make specific recommendations on how to consolidate the archdiocese’s 211 parishes or close one of its 110 schools. But it does give a glimpse of the future.
This suggests that the Archdiocese might not be able to support more than 60 to 65 pastoral missions in a decade, which, based on the number of parishes today, could leave one priest for 3.5 parishes.
By 2031, the report predicts, a priest who serves only one parish “will be an anomaly.”
The archdiocese still has 153 priests, but the report estimates the total will drop to 125 over the next decade. And because half of today’s priests are over 60, many may be retired or unable to lead a parish on their own by 2031.
The report also warns that some Catholic schools, like some parishes, were built decades ago and are no longer located where large numbers of Catholics live, making it difficult to maintain and increase enrollment.
So coming changes to parishes will also mean changes to schools, some of which are increasingly dependent on millions of dollars in Ohio Ed Choice vouchers and the reimbursement of administrative fees from state taxpayers.
“The structure of the school will be affected by structural changes in the parish,” the report said.
Are parishes and schools going to close?
According to Beacons of Light planning documents, this restructuring will be more radical than anything the Archdiocese has done in decades, if not more.
Does this mean the parishes will close? The details the Archdiocese has provided so far do not say so, but the description of the “parish families” model implies that at least some of the original parishes will eventually close.
These documents, available on the Archdiocese’s website, describe the first step such as determining new Mass times and meeting parish councils and staff. Later, however, the plan is to turn the new parish families into something other than a loose association overseen by the same pastor.
The goal is to unite these parishes into one parish.
“The pace at which parishes come together within families will vary and will be determined by the readiness of the parishes to move forward,” church officials explain on the website.
Gaunt said the reorganization is a critical time for the Archdiocese. It is never easy, he says, to adapt to a changing world while respecting the attachment of so many Catholics to their parishes and schools.
“There are family and strong ties to this church building donated to this location,” Gaunt said. “You have to approach this with great sensitivity because it has such a significance in the lives of families. “
Allen-Blue knows from experience how difficult this task can be. She had frequented St Mark’s in Evanston before merging with three other parishes to create Resurrection. At the time, she had opposed the change.
“When there is a merger, it’s a loss,” she said. “It took a long time.”
Eventually, however, she adapted. She joined the finance council of the new parish, became a catechist and, more than 10 years later, still attends the Mass of the Resurrection.
She said she wasn’t sure what to expect from Beacons of Light as everyone is still waiting for details on what it means for their parishes and schools.
But she said people would be more likely to accept the changes if they felt they were part of the decision-making process, so she can’t wait to see what the Archdiocese announces next month and how much church leaders will be open to the opinions of parishioners.
“Nobody likes someone saying that’s how it’s going to be and that’s it,” Allen-Blue said. “It is important to have your say before the facts. “
If the Archdiocese is on schedule for Beacons of Light, Allen-Blue and the other half-million Catholics in the area should know by next spring what they have to say about the future of their parishes and schools. .
This is when church leaders intend to approve parish family structure and appoint pastors to lead them.