Bishop: Diocese has been listening to parishes
By TRACI L. WEISENBACH
For the Advertiser
SEBEWAING — While parishioners at Thumb area Catholic churches are concerned that the Diocese of Saginaw and Bishop Joseph R. Cistone are not listening to their concerns, Cistone said that is not the case.
Bishop Cistone spoke with the Huron Daily Tribune and Tuscola County Advertiser in an exclusive interview Friday afternoon, the day after a Save Our Rural Catholic Churches rally at Holy Family Catholic Church in Sebewaing. While the rally was going on, Bishop Cistone was inside the church, offering a prayer service, which he does on a regular basis at the Diocese parishes.
Those who attended the prayer service said about 30 to 40 people attended the service, including about 16 Holy Family parishioners.
In January, Cistone announced mergers of Catholic parishes across the 11-county Diocese of Saginaw as part of the “Planning Tomorrow’s Parishes” initiative. According to the Diocese of Saginaw website, the grass-roots initiative started in late 2011 when Bishop Cistone had parishes do self studies, which led to parishes working in small cohort groups to create proposals that addressed various aspects of parish life, such as changing demographics, a shortage of priests, and declining church attendance. Each cohort team submitted its plan to a 19-member Diocesan Planning Commission. The commission submitted their own observations and suggestions back to the cohort teams. In the summer of 2012, each cohort considered the commission’s responses and submitted a second and final recommendation to the commission, along with a rationale for their position. The commission members reviewed all the submitted proposals. From there, the commission submitted its recommendations to the Bishop for his consideration.
The Reid Group, a consulting firm that works with organizations in strategic planning, helped the Diocese throughout this process.
Bishop Cistone wants parishioners to know the cohorts’ plans were carefully considered in the decision-making process.
“We are making the best decisions we can make,” he said.
He realizes that not all of the cohorts’ plans were followed exactly as submitted, but to say that he and the Diocese haven’t followed any of the plans simply isn’t true.
“While I can’t meet the needs (of all parishes) in a way they would like them to be met, that’s not a lack of caring,” he said. “I wish I could make it easier.”
The Bishop said, though, that resistance to moving forward with the mergers isn’t making the changes any less painful. He said everyone needs to be working together.
“There has to be an attitude of wanting it to work,” he said.
He said some parishes wanted everything to remain the same, and he said that is just not possible.
Bishop Cistone said the mergers are hard to accept – like a family death – but it doesn’t change the reality of the situation. People need to find a way to move forward, despite the challenges involved.
He said some parishes admitted they understand that changes need to be made, but they also said, “just don’t make it me.” He said he understands this very human response, but the fact remains that changes have to be made to ensure a promising future for parishioners as a whole.
“I understand the pain they’re in … there is a tremendous emotional connection involved, and that is what makes a parish stronger,” he said.
The Bishop said the Diocese’s goal is to do what is best for all parishes, not just a select few.
When making decisions as to which churches will be designated as parishes (main churches), additional use or occasional use, a church’s financial solvency is not the only consideration. Programs and services offered, facility condition, attendance and other factors are taken into consideration, as well.
Bishop Cistone said part of the problem is there are misconceptions about what an additional use church is. Holy Family and St. Francis Borgia in Pigeon are two examples of this category.
“They will continue to operate almost the same as they are now,” he said, noting they will not offer as many Masses, but will still offer one weekend Mass. Many other services can be offered, as well, at these churches.
As for the shortage of priests, Bishop Cistone said he’s not sure why more parish members are not entering the priesthood. He said he’s been doing what he can to encourage young people to join the priesthood.
As part of the planning process, the Bishop said he’s interviewed all of the priests, including retired priests, in the Diocese about their willingness to serve in more than one location. He said many are willing to do so and some are willing to travel as many as 100 miles to help, and the Diocese is not refusing this assistance. However, it is not always viable for priests to travel far, especially in the winter months. He said age of the retired priests is another factor to consider.
He said as the mergers are moving forward, some churches struggle while others are working in a cooperative manner to make it work. He said some churches are very excited about the mergers for a variety of reasons.
“The Masses are larger, which makes the liturgies livelier,” he said. “Different talents are being brought together.”
He said the mergers are leading to new relationships being formed between churches, new parish councils, and programs are improving. In many ways, the mergers are breathing new life into churches.
People at the Save Our Rural Catholic Churches rally voiced disappointment that the Bishop did not come out of the church to talk with them. He said he didn‘t do so because no one informed him of the rally. He read about it in a news report, but he was not invited to speak, he said. He believes those at the rally “missed the mark.” He said it would’ve been more useful for those at the rally to attend the prayer service to unite and pray about the mergers. He said much more work needs to be done.
“By no means are we out of the woods yet,” he said.
However, the Bishop said if the parishes stand together and work cooperatively to face challenges, the mergers can and will work for the betterment of everyone.
“The Lord is guiding us – I continue to have great hope,” he said.