The April 18 consultation meeting at Holy Family Church in Newark for people representing the nine parishes of the Iron Hill Deanery was an affirmation for the future of the Diocese of Wilmington right from the start.
That’s because the more than 60 Catholics at the session had already attended parish-level consultations on issues for the diocese to address during the next five years. Their arrival at Holy Family on a drizzly Wednesday night underlined their commitment to help build a future for the diocese by sharing their parish discussions with other Catholics from the area.
The consultation, announced in February by Bishop Malooly to help him establish diocesan mission and ministry goals for the next five years, started Feb. 16 and 17 when 86 priests of the diocese met in Cambridge, Md.
The Diocesan Consultation Committee of 16 clergy and lay people shaped the concerns and ideas raised by the priests into discussion starters for 57 parish consultation meetings and a similar session attended by diocesan leaders.
At Holy Family, Father Steven B. Giuliano, dean of the Iron Hill parishes and pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Middletown, welcomed the participants.
Sister Suzanne Donovan, who designed the consultation process based on her experience helping businesses develop strategic plans before she became the diocesan director of Human Resources, explained the deanery-level consultation meeting agenda.
Sister Donovan urged the group to “bring to the table the wisdom you gained in your experience of the church and the consultations you had at your parishes.”
She told the attendees they were assigned to tables with people from other parishes in order for the meeting to generate a diocesan perspective on “where we want the energy to be for the next several years” in mission and ministry.
People at each table were given eight aspects of ministry, conversation starters, to affirm or not affirm for future diocesan action.
The subjects, culled from the previous 59 consultation sessions around the diocese, ranged from building sustainable faith communities, to establishing new paradigms (models) of leadership, to affirming priests in their ministries.
Participants at table 7 agreed to let The Dialog listen in on their discussions. Steve Michel, from St. Paul’s Parish in Delaware City, led the conversations on the eight topics while keeping an eye on the clock in order to finish in the hour-or-so time frame that Sister Donovan said the discussions at other meetings took.
Xylene Graves, who became a Catholic at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Bear a year ago, volunteered to record the table’s yeas and nays on affirming the topics. She also wrote down specific points people suggested.
Also at the table were Sharon Rosseel from St. Paul’s in Delaware City; Doris Young from St. Joseph in Middletown; Joanne Warren from St. John-Holy Angels in Newark; Charles Benn from St. Joseph’s in Middletown; and Ky Bertoli from Holy Family.
Every conversation starter on the list of priorities to consider was affirmed at the table. The votes weren’t always unanimous but the conversations raised interesting points and perspectives on diocesan goals.
Starting a discussion on building sustainable parishes, Michel noted his Delaware City perspective was from a small parish where 100 to 120 people attend Mass on Saturdays and Sundays.
Building a vibrant faith community for youth and young adults was a priority for Bertoli, who said he was active with young adults at Holy Family. Graves, a young adult also, echoed Bertoli’s point and called retention of young people, who often leave parishes after they’re married or earlier, should be the biggest issue.
Young said when young parents’ children are learning about the sacraments, parents are often learning things they didn’t know, but even inactive parents want their children to receive holy Communion.
“There’s a reverence for the sacraments,” Warren said, “but not a reverence for going to church.”
The table 7 participants “strongly affirmed” the need for new models of parish leadership.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Bertoli said. “The number of priests is going down.” He also suggested training lay people to be pastoral associates and changing the mindset that “there are some things only a priest can do.”
“It’s unfair to think that all priests are jacks-of-all-trades,” Warren said.
“If people know they’re needed to do something, you have to say we need you,” Graves said of parish volunteers. “They need a call to action.”
While table 7 affirmed the need for evangelization, most agreed Catholics aren’t good at evangelizing.
“If the church is perceived as a special club, we’ll have a very difficult job making that club accessible,” Warren said.
Young said she had encountered someone who learned she was Catholic and said, “You’re Catholic? I thought you were Christian.” That was because she’s quick to declare her love for the Lord in public situations, she said. “Catholics do not understand evangelization.”
The discussion on the diocese working on cultural diversity was quick and short at table 7, where the goal was affirmed by a 6-1 vote.
Bertoli, who said Holy Family has no problem with serving diverse communities, didn’t think diversity efforts need to be a diocesan priority.
Warren pointed out that lifestyle diversity, ministry to divorced Catholics, gays and lesbians, isn’t addressed as much as the needs of other groups. She noted her parish includes English and Spanish prayer at most Masses.
Emphasizing recovery and healing for sexual abuse survivors received instant support without much talk at table 7.
When the discussion turned to running the diocese more like a business with best practices models, Benn was cautious. “If you are a church, you need to be a church,” he said, noting emphasizing business bothers him because a business approach could turn from “how do we protect our income, to how do we increase our bottom line.”
Bertoli said the correct business model for the church is nonprofit. He also suggested that following a business model, the church should treat its lay employees like professionals.
‘Circle of ownership’
Within a week after the Iron Hill Deanery meeting, Sister Donovan had assembled all the data and suggestions from 65 consultations, involving 1,100 people, held in the diocese since February.
Her report has been given to the Diocesan Consultation Committee and its members are preparing personal responses to discuss when they meet on May 21.
Still to come are deanery meetings with the priests of the diocese to discuss the consultation results.
Sister Donovan expects Bishop Malooly to receive the final report from the Consultation Committee in the beginning of June.
While 1,100 offered opinions in parish meetings and 335 people attended the deanery sessions, Sister Donovan said what’s been really encouraging about the consultation process hasn’t been the numbers. “It’s the energy and enthusiasm of the people about the conversation. There’s been a passion of their love for the church.” At the discussion tables she’s watched parishioners as “they all lean in and their shoulders touch” when they speak. “That’s what happens; it’s a circle of ownership.”