ROMAN CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF GREENSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA SYNODAL SYNTHESIS
On October 17, 2021, Bishop Larry J. Kulick, sixth bishop of the Diocese of Greensburg, celebrated the opening Mass for the Synodal process at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Shortly after, the Diocese began to undertake a massive effort to listen to a broad range of people throughout our faith community and discuss major issues together with a goal of hearing where the Holy Spirit is calling the Church.
Bishop Kulick’s role was to facilitate, listen, seek and encourage feedback and provide staff and volunteers the resources necessary to complete the process. He appeared in a video inviting and encouraging everyone in the diocese to participate in the process of listening, dialogue and consultation.
Alongside Bishop Kulick, co-leaders Deacon Daniel Frescura and Jennifer Miele, Chief Communications Officer and Managing Director of Evangelization, gathered a committee representing parishes, schools, diocesan ministries and religious communities. The committee held an orientation meeting and established a timeline and working sub-groups, then developed mass communication surrounding the Synodal process. The group planned and executed the listening methods and answered the call to implement hybrid tactics; various in-person, virtual, digital and social mediums were used to gather input.
The committee determined the major themes of the Synodal process for the Diocese of Greensburg:
Identifying the Pressing Needs of Our Community
Creating Engaging Catechetical Development
Determining the Pastoral Connectivity of our Parishes
Forming Future Church Leadership
Keeping Faith Alive in our Culture
The continuity and consistency of the responses should be noted; from nearly 1,000 individuals who attended the in-person and virtual listening sessions, many expressed a need to focus on transmitting the faith through enhanced catechesis and evangelization. Almost all participants have a great desire to pass on the faith and a sincere interest to help but are not sure how they can be of assistance. Many also expressed concern about fulfilling the legacy of our faith, fearful about how we will fill our pews with the next generation of disciples. Another point conveyed by many participants was the need for pastoral care of parents and grandparents whose children have already left the Church.
Nearly 10,000 paper and electronic surveys were aggregated from across the Diocese of Greensburg, from parishioners, clergy, religious orders and young people. The surveys revealed that more than 80% of respondents feel very connected to their faith because of the communication they receive from their parishes about opportunities to engage in parish life. This is likely a positive result of COVID-19, when the shutdown necessitated a new model of communication. Many parishes began social media pages, created e-mail databases, and used video to share Mass and spiritual messages with their congregations.
THEMATIC QUESTIONS AND SYNTHESIS
Pressing Needs of Our Community
In the fall of 2021, and as part of both the Synodal and strategic planning processes for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Greensburg, a survey of stakeholders regarding the pressing needs of our community was sent to staff, volunteers, clergy and parishioners. Catholic Charities received 3,000 responses from across the four counties of the Diocese. The results are as follows:
80% believe the decline in Catholic and overall population in Western Pennsylvania is the most pressing issue facing our community.
65% believe that drug and alcohol abuse is a pressing issue.
57% believe that the lack of mental health services in Western Pennsylvania is a pressing issue.
56% believe lack of assistance for seniors to remain independent is a pressing issue.
45% believe poverty is a pressing issue for our community.
The Strategic Planning Committee of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Greensburg utilized the survey to draft a strategic plan that will guide the work of the organization. Over the next three years, the strategic priorities in the plan will serve as the operational framework for charity, service and outreach to Armstrong, Indiana, Fayette and Westmoreland Counties of Pennsylvania. This plan will affirm Catholic Charities’ mission, vision and values, set forth its goals and objectives and, when operationalized, will greatly benefit our community. In the coming years, Catholic Charities leadership will use this plan to focus effort, communicate priorities, and navigate a path forward.
Engaging Catechetical Development: Christ is the Truth
In 2021, Bishop Larry J. Kulick announced a study of Faith Formation in the Diocese of Greensburg titled “Christ is the Truth.” This initiative has as its goal the development of enhanced holistic formation programs in Armstrong, Fayette, Indiana and Westmoreland Counties for every child and every adult who wants to learn and live the Catholic faith. Following this announcement, listening sessions were conducted and surveys distributed in order to discover the thoughts and needs of those most directly involved with providing faith formation throughout the Diocese.
To begin the discovery process, eight listening sessions were held throughout the four counties of the Diocese. Over ninety-two people attended representing the seventy-eight parishes. The feedback from participants centered around four key areas: creative catechesis programming for all ages which included the caveat of effective teaching as well; collaboration and communication among parishes; building relationships through outreach; and encountering Christ.
The concerns expressed about the state of faith formation in the Diocese were comprehensive with the need for enhanced, creative catechesis for all ages receiving priority for action. Participants noted that the formation of the youth was being neglected because of the lack of formation of their parents. The point that new, creative and appealing types of faith formation need to be developed was raised often. Children have changed, but the types of faith formation have not. Lack of programming for young adults causes a gap in formation that might persist through adulthood. It was clear that formation of the people of the Diocese should be enhanced.
As the listening sessions were being conducted, the Office of Faith, Family and Discipleship sent out a survey to the seventy-eight parishes in the Diocese to identify the types of faith formation opportunities that currently existed, the number of participants in the identified ministries, as well as the types of resources they were using. There was a 51% response rate.
The survey provided a snapshot of the types of programs being offered in the Diocese and the approximate number of parishes offering diverse types of catechesis for youth and adults. It projected the number of students at each grade level making it easier to discern where regions could collaborate on offerings so that groups can be larger and more invigorating. It also indicated that there are weaknesses in offerings for young adult ministry and ministry to the special needs population. Bible study is the most common form of adult outreach while faith formation and youth ministry are the options for children in grades Pre-K to 12.
The results of the needs survey demonstrate again that there is a need for better communication as highlighted by the lack of knowledge of resources that are available to parishes for faith formation efforts. That collaboration could be the solution to the need for additional staffing to provide more programming. That outreach could assist with the procurement of qualified speakers.
In summary, the listening sessions and the surveys support the need for enhanced catechetical offerings, communication, collaboration and outreach in and among the parishes in the Diocese of Greensburg. The fulfillment of many of these needs will help the leaders of our parishes to bring Christ to the people. There is much work to be done, but there are also many devoted people willing to serve the Church and fulfill the needs.
Pastoral Connectivity: How does the Church pastorally respond to the needs of the people?
The Synodal journey here in the Diocese of Greensburg included a pastoral connectivity survey. A coordinated integrated communication plan called “Survey Saturday and Sunday” was launched on Saturday and Sunday January 23 and 24, 2022. A printed copy of the survey appeared in church bulletins throughout the Diocese of Greensburg that weekend, and pastors were asked to make note of the survey during a pulpit announcement. The survey was also e-mailed to a database of more than 25,000 parishioner e-mail addresses that weekend. The survey appeared in the January issue of the Diocese of Greensburg’s newspaper called The Catholic Accent. It was also made available electronically on the Diocese website and social media pages.
The Synod Committee recognized that a synod is a gathering of church leaders, both clergy and laity, which includes the whole People of God. Special efforts were made to engage as many people as possible. A survey alert postcard was mailed to 20,000 parishioner homes who previously engaged with their parishes by donating but had not done so in the last five years. The survey link was sent to leaders of local LGBTQ and Divorced Catholic groups for distribution. The length and intensity of the survey were modified for young Catholics under the age of 18 to encourage participation.
The survey stated: Millions of Catholics across the country and around the world are being called to communion, participation and mission by our Holy Father Pope Francis. He is asking that we assemble in a “synod” by sharing our thoughts on the pastoral connectivity of our Church. This is the start of an important journey together, to listen to, and discern the realities, needs and hopes of the faithful. While individual responses are anonymous, the overall results of this survey will be presented to Bishop Larry J. Kulick and then to the Holy Father at the Ordinary Synod of Bishops in October 2023 in Rome. When you answer the questions in this survey, you have an opportunity to share your voice to help us fully live out our call to build communion, encourage participation and live out our mission. Thank you for your prayerful consideration of your responses.
Nearly 10,000 surveys were collected. The aggregate results are as follows:
I can explain the mission of the Church to others.
43% said yes, definitely.
I leave Mass feeling spiritually fed.
68% said yes, definitely.
My parish is sensitive to the major needs of parishioners.
58% said yes, definitely.
The music at Mass helps me enter into a prayerful attitude.
65% said yes, definitely.
The homilies at Mass are relevant and meaningful.
67% said yes, definitely.
The money spent by my parish reflects its commitment to the mission of the Church.
57% said yes, definitely.
The religious education at my parish is forming well-rounded disciples.
45% said yes, definitely.
My parish communicates with me about opportunities for worship and service.
81% said yes, definitely.
I feel that my parish welcomes my ideas and participation.
52% said yes, definitely.
I feel that I am an integral part of the parish community.
50% said yes, definitely.
I participate in activities of my parish beyond Mass attendance.
43% said yes, definitely.
The Church is a visible, integral part of my neighborhood and the larger community.
59% said yes, definitely.
The Church reaches out to those who feel disenfranchised.
37% said yes, definitely.
The survey data will help to guide Bishop Kulick and his curia in devising new, integrated and creative approaches to spiritual connectivity. The results will also be provided to each parish to assist them in identifying their own priorities for supporting the pastoral connectivity of their parish. Parishioners were asked to indicate their age and parish which will enable the Synod committee to provide a parish by parish breakdown of the results (SEE APPENDIX).
Forming Future Church Leadership
On February 2, 2003, Bishop Anthony Bosco, third bishop of the Diocese of Greensburg, put in place Regional Councils across the Diocese enabling him to receive consultation and advice from the local level on both Diocesan and parochial concerns. These regional councils assisted the Diocese through a few very important and specific Diocesan initiatives as well as the development and implementation of an all-encompassing Diocesan strategic plan.
Their existence has served us well. However, over the past 18 intervening years much has changed. Many more of our parishes have been twinned and/or partnered, and our priests, almost without exception, pastor multiple parishes or hold multiple positions of leadership within the Diocese. We are called to constantly ask ourselves the question, “Is there a better way to work with each other so as to advance the Mission of Jesus Christ?”
At the Wednesday, October 20, 2021, Clergy Convocation, Bishop Kulick announced to the Clergy that effective November 1, 2021, a revised Deanery structure will replace the existing Regional and Deanery structures. It is his hope that this revised structure will serve to advance the Mission of Jesus Christ in a way that more closely corresponds to the needs of our Diocese at this time. This new organizational schema was developed and approved after consultation of the Deans, the Priests Council as well as the Managing Directors of the Diocese. Three new Deans were announced, who bring a younger perspective to the regional structure.
The Synod Committee of the Diocese of Greensburg also organized an event to engage active pastoral and finance councils throughout the Diocese of Greensburg. On February 6, 2021, pastoral and finance council members from 10 parishes were invited to Mass and brunch with Bishop Kulick, and 92 attended.
Vicar General Monsignor Raymond Riffle led the discussion at the brunch. He told the councils that Bishop Kulick has said that by the end of 2023 he would like every parish in the Diocese of Greensburg to have active and engaged pastoral and finance councils.
Each person attending was invited because their pastor believes their work is invaluable to the viability and vitality of their parish. At some point, these individuals may even be called upon to mentor other parish councils.
He asked them to discuss their secret recipes — what they believe are the key ingredients to successful pastoral and finance councils.
Most councils believe they were successful because of the diversity of talents around the table. They value transparency, parishioner and pastor input, and the ability to listen to one another. Many of the councils thought it was important to clearly communicate the “state” of the parish yearly, by providing a written or electronic report to ensure parishioners are aware of the opportunities and challenges facing each parish. All stressed the need for new, younger members who can bring valuable insight to the parish mission and activities.
Keeping Faith Alive in our Culture: Parish Town Halls
More than 1,000 members of the faith community in the Diocese of Greensburg gathered throughout February for eighteen town hall meetings as part of the Diocesan process for the Synod on Synodality. Eight meetings were in person at parishes throughout the four-county region, seven were held specifically for clergy in every deanery throughout the Diocese, two were held at local Catholic high schools, and one was virtual; all were attended by Bishop Larry J. Kulick. The listening sessions are part of our journey of the faithful, as called by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, to allow the Holy Spirit to guide the discussion about the mission of the Church by listening and hearing one another in all facets of Church life.
Individuals who attended the listening sessions gathered in groups of 10, and discussion was led by a trained facilitator. The Diocese recruited and trained nearly 40 facilitators. These individuals each volunteered their time because they believe the Synodal process is extremely important. They emphasized to participants that no matter their level of involvement with the Church, their ideas, thoughts, opinions and feelings matter. They also reminded each group that Bishop Kulick would be making his way around the room so he could listen to what was being said.
Here was the format: Each facilitator read a passage and asked the participants to ponder a few questions pertaining to that passage. Facilitators went around the circle and asked for input. Responses were recorded on a log sheet.
Topic #1 – The Mission of our Church
Last year, a 12-year-old girl from Irwin made a decision to become Catholic. She had not been baptized but started to spend more time connecting with the Church while suffering some devastating losses. In a span of six months, she lost her puppy, her great grandfather and her mother. Her mother had been in addiction recovery for four years when officials believe she died accidently from a combination of prescription medication and an enlarged heart. The Church gave her a much-needed closeness to God and a network of support.
Another parishioner from Indiana County lost her daughter and unborn grandchild to domestic violence. She chose to turn her pain into purpose, answering a call to create a new and unique ministry. She now collects wedding dresses that are sewn into baptismal gowns for babies who may not be able to leave the hospital for their baptism. The Church helped her to open her heart to forgiveness and a calling to use her talents to help those in need.
What is Church for you? Do you belong to a Church? Do you know the mission of the Church? How do you think the next generation of Catholics feel about the Church and its mission?
Most of the attendees did belong to a parish and could identify the mission of the Church. However, almost all were concerned about the next generation of Catholics feeling disconnected from the mission or not even really understanding it. In most cases, participants emphasized the need for more creative, engaging faith formation and opportunities for adult formation, devotion and well-celebrated liturgies that touch the hearts and minds of parishioners. Often, it was said, parishioners need to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit. There was also a call for a clear, united voice from the Church on its teachings.
Topic #2 – The Church’s presence in the community
The Roman Catholic Churches of Uniontown, in partnership with Fayette County Community Action, distributed food boxes drive-thru style at Uniontown Mall last November. The four Uniontown parishes raised the money to pay for the food boxes, which included chicken, eggs, milk and bread. Father Anthony J. Klimko, pastor of the Uniontown parishes, said none of the parishes would have had the room to pack and distribute 600 boxes. On their own, the parishes typically pack and distribute about 150 Thanksgiving baskets each.
St. Agnes Parish in North Huntingdon offers a monthly interfaith support group specifically designed for caregivers to individuals with dementia. Some participants are family members turned full-time caregivers and others are medical professionals. All the sessions are facilitated by a team of individuals who have dealt with the difficulties facing families who are losing a loved one to this terrible disease.
These are examples of our church being a visible, integral part of the greater community. Let’s talk about that for a few minutes. What are the projects or ministries that you believe to be the most impactful – or what ministries would you like to see that may be more sensitive to the needs of parishioners? What kinds of ministries should the church be doing to better draw people into the faith who want to volunteer their time to serve their faith community?
Parishioners listed many impactful ministries at their parishes like bereavement, poverty relief, homebound and senior care ministries and pro-life advocacy. Some recognized the need for more service opportunities to better engage younger Catholics. Many expressed a need for an evangelization ministry to those who have left the Church. There were countless parents and grandparents who expressed a deep hurt over their children leaving the Church and asked for spiritual guidance. Almost all who participated were willing to help with new evangelization and spiritual outreach but are asking for guidance on what exactly they should be doing.
Topic #3 – The future of our Church
There is a math problem in the Diocese of Greensburg. The number of funerals far outweigh the number of baptisms in our parishes. The overall number of parishioners is shrinking at a faster rate than the overall population of Western Pa – which is one of the fastest shrinking populations in the country. Fewer young people are being confirmed and married in the Church. And the number of native-born priests in the Diocese of Greensburg is expected to shrink from about 37 to 15 in the next ten years.
In many Dioceses around the country, the story is similar, particularly in the wake of both the clergy abuse crisis and COVID-19. In a recent survey by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the top solutions to those problems from parishioners include: more engaging faith formation for young people and adults, more inspirational homilies that better speak to the next generation of Catholics, mission-driven ministries that invite young people to live out the Gospel, local and regional opportunities to better understand the Bible and Catholic social teaching, reflection opportunities to help parishioners discern their vocation or profession in life, and leadership opportunities for laypeople to help promote best practices in finance, human resources, transparency and management.
What are your thoughts on these possible solutions, in particular with regard to young people leaving the Church and the role of laity in the future of the Church?
Many participants received the “math problem” with surprise and anguish. There is great concern about vocations and the engagement of young people. Most participants believe youth and young adults will respond to mission-oriented parish work, as well as creative and new evangelization and faith formation. There was a call from many for family-oriented catechesis, youth-focused Masses, retreats and social activities to make the parish the center of spiritual life for families so that parents will prioritize involvement. The assistance of well-trained lay leaders was viewed as a necessity so that priests can focus on the sacramental needs of the parish.
The Synod Committee found that this process offered an unexpected hyperlocal element of feedback for individual parishes, pastors, faith formation and music leaders from their own parishioners. The Diocese decided to create parish reports complete with data trends and diocesan-wide comparisons, along with comments submitted during the process, and plan to distribute these to parishes later this summer (SEE APPPENDIX).
It is also important to note the many opportunities Bishop Kulick has discovered to re-engage sectors of the faithful throughout the Diocese of Greensburg.
- YOUTH: Only about half of respondents under the age of 18 believe that music during Mass and homilies is engaging. And only 43% feel they are an integral part of the Church.
- FALLEN AWAY CATHOLICS: Of the respondents who no longer feel connected to the Church, most cannot explain the mission and do not feel they are an integral part of the Church.
- PRACTICING CATHOLICS: Those who attend Mass regularly feel we are caring for their needs but do not feel the Church is doing enough for the disenfranchised.
- THOSE WHO WANT TO HELP: Many expressed a willingness to help but are not sure what they can do and disagree about parish consolidation and opportunities to share resources.
- OTHER ISSUES: There were pockets of discourse surrounding Latin Mass, the environment and the church’s stance on gay marriage.
The Diocese of Greensburg Synod Committee (SEE APPENDIX), under the leadership of Bishop Larry J. Kulick, utilized an integrated approached to the Synodal process in an effort to gather input from across the region from as many individuals as possible over a five-month period. The committee has taken seriously the call from our Holy Father to create a more Synodal Church. The information gathered has prompted the Diocese to continue to implement listening sessions, continue to gather input, and continue looking for opportunities to evangelize. We are grateful for the opportunity to serve the Church and pray that our Holy Father receives this input with interest and excitement for what we can be as Catholics.