Fit for Mission Continues: Why we need to Link, Merge and even Close Parishes

Dear Friends in Christ,

Welcome to this week’s Bishop’s Blog!

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This week I want to reflect upon a phenomenon that our Diocese – among many others in the Western world – is experiencing and will do so more deeply in the months and years ahead: the linking, merging and probable closing of some of our churches and parishes so as to strengthen our missionary presence in the world.

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It’s a process we’ve been working at and preparing for in faith for some 7 years in this Diocese of Lancaster through our continuing Fit for Mission? process of fulsome consultation (three stages), reflection and prayer – led in its initial stages at the time by my predecessor Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue – of how we can re-group as Catholic parishes that are increasingly fit for mission in our Diocese.

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Where the process is rolled-out to its completion there is, of course, an initial sense of grief and ‘dying’ for the people and the priests directly concerned – and I share in these emotions, too, as bishop. Hopefully, however, with the right leadership on the ground a sense of ‘new life’ or resurrection can be created as well; a new identity in a newer, larger, active and stronger parish community.

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Some of our people will certainly be (and are) sad, upset, and often angry when their church or Mass centre is closed and their parish is merged with a neighbouring parish. This is most understandable. Loyal Catholic people love their parishes, and consider them their spiritual home containing many cherished memories. To see them changed or merged, even with neighbouring parishes, is a very difficult experience indeed.

Why do we have to go through all this? A very good question.

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For one, at 92 parishes in the Diocese, we simply have too many parishes and churches, in areas that used to have significant Catholic numbers and thus plenty of priests to serve them, where most of the people have since moved away. Here I’m thinking especially of the once-densely (Catholic) populated city centre parishes in Preston and once-busy seaside towns like Blackpool.

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Simply put and sad to admit, our people aren’t coming in those numbers anymore! True, some of the shortage in older parishes is due to the fact that our people have moved to the suburbs. Others have ‘lapsed’. The people that do come are as committed as ever – but are nowhere near the numbers needed to support huge and beautiful church buildings often built at the high point of post-Emancipation Catholic restoration in this country.

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Two, we are called to be good stewards of our financial and physical resources. So often on my parish visitations and confirmations the people of God tell me they would rather their offerings are spent on mission initiatives like: outreach to the lapsed, ministry with young people, improving the liturgy, lay formation for adults, the poor rather than towards buildings. Increasingly, it is difficult to justify ‘throwing’ money at buildings that may well have to close in a just a few years’ time.

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By merging parishes now, hopefully we will make better use of our human and financial resources – pooling together the gifts from baptism and confirmation we have received.

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Three, we can no longer staff them. While still, thank God, blessed with just enough priests for a ‘maintenance-model’ of today, aided by our permanent deacons, a dwindling number of religious, and lay leaders, their numbers are shrinking fast.

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What we’re talking about is realism. Families face it, our schools are doing it, businesses and organisations do it — now our parishes must somehow do it too.

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Often individual parishioners and priests across the Diocese will quietly say to me: “We need to do something! We can’t go on like we’re still in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, as if we have the numbers, the resources, the priests that we used to. We’ll have to reduce the number of parishes.”

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But that’s usually followed by an appeal, “But, please don’t close or merge mine!”

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Pope – now St – John Paul II called us to a ‘new evangelisation’. So, our vocation is to be Church – rather than just ‘going to church’ – and then to win our people back as missionary disciples of the Lord! We cannot, he told us, be so exhausted by the maintenance and protection of our parishes and institutions, our set and numerous Mass times, and established ways of doing things that we have no energy left for the mission of the Lord!

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With fewer, but stronger, fuller and more vibrant parishes, better served by more available priests, in new communities no longer burdened or drained by demands of maintenance of huge, half-empty, in-need-of-repair buildings, and with sound and increased lay adult formation, we can indeed unleash an energetic new evangelisation so needed in our Diocese!

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Until next week – may God bless and keep you all and thank you for all your support,

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+Michael G Campbell OSA
Bishop of Lancaster

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