In his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis writes, “The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community.” As we look to the future in the Archdiocese of Seattle, the Lord is calling us to this openness and creativity.
We face immediate and long-term challenges that call us to move beyond the familiar and the comfortable. These challenges also provide an opportunity for us to grow in our life in Jesus Christ, to accompany one another on the journey of faith, and to live the joy of the Gospel each day.
The challenges are at our doorstep, and they have implications for the future. In our Priest Personnel Board meetings, it has become clear that we do not have enough pastors to fill the needs of our parishes by July 1. For that reason, we will need to ask several parishes to share a pastor. This is a short-term solution to a pressing need, but it points to a longer-term challenge and opportunity.
Given the number of priest retirements compared to the number of ordinations that we project over the next 15 years, the 168 parishes and missions in our archdiocese will be served by approximately 67 archdiocesan priests. And, while we will still benefit from the ministry of priests from other countries, it is important to realize in most of those countries the Church is growing, and they have greater need for priests than we do!
This sobering reality means we must engage the “great flexibility” envisioned by the Holy Father, and the life of our parishes must take on “different contours.”
At the same time, the Lord is giving us a tremendous opportunity to respond to this challenge with great creativity. By virtue of our common baptism, laypeople and ordained ministers have a shared responsibility for the life of the Church and the spread of the Gospel. The challenge we face is not just about numbers of priests, but also about calling forth laypeople for the important work of ministry.
As an archdiocese, we have a long history of developing and supporting lay ecclesial ministers. But, as with priests, the number of lay ministers, both professional and volunteer, has declined. It is time to revitalize this crucial ministry. We wish to be a mission-driven Church where all the various gifts and ministries are present and active, where a vital partnership exists between priests, deacons, consecrated men and women and laypeople.
To meet these challenges and plan for the future, I am initiating a more intensive strategic planning process for our archdiocese, called “Partners in the Gospel” (see Philippians 1:3-6). Over the coming months, we will engage leadership and parishioners in planning for the long-term vitality of our local Church.
In the meantime, I wanted you to be aware that a number of parishes and priests this year will feel the impact of the challenges we face. While I am very hopeful about where the Lord is calling us, I know that for many people these times will be filled with some anxiety. But we are in this together, and together we will meet this challenge and embrace this opportunity to lead our Catholic Church in Western Washington into a future full of hope.
I have found great hope in recent days in the words of St. Paul to the Church in Philippi. These words provide hope for us today in the Archdiocese of Seattle, and I quote them here as my prayer:
“I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:3–6)
Let us pray for a great sensitivity to the Holy Spirit who will show us how we are to embody Christ as Church today. God is faithful and continues to accompany us on this journey of faith in our partnership for the Gospel. Please know that I continue to pray for you, and I ask that you continue to pray for me, and for the priests and pastoral ministers of our local Church.