When the Catholic Bishop of Columbus Robert Brennan heard last month that he would serve the Diocese of Brooklyn, one of his first thoughts was about the future of the projects he had started but not yet completed here.
One of those projects – a campaign launched by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus called Real Presence, Real Future – was to plan for the years to come in the diocese. It was referred to by Columbus’ Catholic officials as the hallmark of the bishop’s two and a half years here, although it is incomplete.
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“This process will be of real help to someone who walks in,” Brennan said, referring to his yet-to-be-named successor. “We’re going to do some of the important legwork to keep it going.”
The biennial cross-diocesan process was publicly launched this year during Lent and is similar to those that have taken place or are taking place in other dioceses across the country that have resulted in the closure of parishes and Catholic schools in the course of consolidation plans.
The local process is likely to result in some parishes closing and merging due to shortages of priests, changing demographics and an effort to make the most of the diocesan resources, Brennan said in an interview with The Dispatch before announcing his reassignment.
The aim is to find out where the diocese is and where it has to go. He wants to continue working on the plan for the next few weeks until he leaves for Brooklyn at the end of November.
Rev. Michael Hartge, moderator of the diocese curia and leader of the initiative, said he believed it was a hallmark of Brennan’s time in Columbus because the bishop took what he heard from the priests – that there was a need for a plan for the future Diocese – and made it a reality. Hartge said he looked at statistics, obtained feedback and developed a strategy.
The diocese currently holds 200 meetings to gather feedback from parishioners, although it also received feedback from the Disciple Maker Index, a 75-question survey that the diocese said more than 20,000 local parishioners took part in this spring. The aim was to find out how people feel about their parishes and their personal spiritual growth.
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“We have to see what appetite the people have because we know that we have to do something across the diocese to use priests,” said Hartge.
One way to use priests is to write down areas with many churches but not as many people, such as Downtown Columbus, where churches were built every half mile for people to go to church.
“That was necessary in 1870,” said Brennan. “Today it’s a different need.”
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Catholics have redistributed across the 23 wards diocese over the years, he said.
For example, many churches are growing around Interstate 270 while parishioners in rural areas are dwindling. Even so, Brennan said he didn’t want to lose touch in these rural areas.
The needs of the diocese have not been assessed for some time, he said.
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“I think we’ve only responded to needs for the past few decades, to changes in the population,” Brennan said.
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Some communities started merging before Real Presence, Real Future, Brennan said.
This includes Scioto County’s seven parishes consolidating into four in the spring of 2020, before Real Presence, Real Future began. The campaign may have to merge more parishes across the rest of the diocese, Brennan said.
“We want to make it clear that the Church needs to be very present and strong, even in places where we may not be able to maintain the number of buildings,” Brennan said.
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The presence, he said, is sustained by lay movements of people of faith and, Hartge added, by people stepping out of pews into the world to make disciples and increase Christ’s presence.
There will be subcommittees for evangelization, an increase in missionaries on the area’s college campuses, a curriculum that is imbued with more Catholic faith in K-12 schools, and more.
“We want to make our parishes into places of succession formation,” said Hartge. “We’re not just looking for a church in a certain area, which is important. We currently have a church in every county, but what about our social work? Our social services?”
Catholics have fewer priests to lead the flock
Part of the goal, Brennan said, is to make parishioners feel amazed at mass.
“It’s not the same old, same old way of doing business,” Brennan said. “It’s not just about land and buildings, it’s about getting involved in new ways.”
The challenge increases that priests are thinly distributed. There are dwindling numbers of Catholic priests around the world.
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From 1975 to 2008, the number of priests increased by 1% and that of Catholics increased by 64%, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a national non-profit organization that studies the Catholic Church. A 2008 CARA study showed that half of active US priests wanted to retire by 2019.
In 2020, according to CARA, there were 24,653 diocesan priests in the country and 16,703 parishes, compared to 37,272 priests in 1970.
“We have to figure out how we can best serve everyone,” said Brennan. “We have to make sure that the church is present wherever it needs to be present.”
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According to the diocese’s website, there are only 97 active priests serving 278,528 Catholics in 105 parishes in the diocese. That number is only expected to decline, officials said, as few men are in training to become priests and many are on the verge of retirement. Some parishes also need more than one priest because of their size.
“The population is aging,” said Hartge. “About 40% are over 60 years old … It is very important to us that we can tackle this now.”
The shortage of priests was a trigger for the planning process of the diocese, said Hartge.
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Similar initiatives have taken place or are in progress in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Pittsburgh, among others. They are directed by the Pennsylvania-based Catholic Leadership Institute, which coordinates Columbus’ efforts.
In Pittsburgh, more than two-thirds of communities have been closed or merged with others, according to Public Source, a not-for-profit news organization in Pittsburgh. The diocese grew from 188 parishes to only 57. The changes were made as part of a campaign launched in 2015 to reallocate its resources.
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In Cincinnati, the diocese launched a campaign called Beacons of Light in the fall of 2020, in which congregations are grouped into “families” that are cared for by a pastor.
Brennan said that Columbus is taking a different approach than Pittsburgh and that the diocese does not have a target number for ward closings, but this is evident from the talks that are currently being held with parishioners.
Nelson Yoder, 45, attended one of his ward’s two meetings through Zoom on Saturday. Yoder from Dublin has been attending St Brendan the Navigator’s Catholic Church in Hilliard for about six years and said he was impressed with the way the diocese is approaching the changes.
“They are very organized and really ask for feedback from everyone in the diocese,” said Yoder. “It’s really well-coordinated public relations.”
St. Brendan, just off Interstate 270, is alive and well, and Real Presence, Real Future’s ward meetings and process have enabled people like Yoder to learn about other local churches, he said.
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“It really helps bring the diocese closer together,” he said. “As a parishioner in a parish, it’s easy to focus on what’s going on there. … The discussions really got us thinking about the other parishes in our diocese.”
Yoder sees this process as an opportunity to grow as a religious community by connecting more closely with and even visiting other parishes in the diocese.
He also said he felt that his voice and that of others would be heard throughout the meeting, and he believed that the process is influenced by the feedback from people in the diocese.
That’s the goal, said Brennan.
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“We need to see what it takes to understand the needs of the churches,” he said.
Brennan said he did not expect any of the diocesa’s 53 Catholic schools to close as part of the process.
However, Hartge warned that it was at such an early stage that it was difficult to answer specific questions about church or school closings.
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Before Brennan was re-appointed, decisions should be made after recommendations were sent out to him in the summer of 2022. implementation will take years, he said.
“We’ll see where the new leadership goes,” he said. “We’ll just accept it.”