By Linda m. Linonis
The Youngstown Diocese has 40,000 fewer Catholics than it did in 2002.
BOARDMAN — Bishop George V. Murry of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown has been doing his homework to craft a strategic plan for the six-county diocese.
Many faithful in the diocese wonder whether their church or school will be closed, combined or consolidated. The bishop said announcements on such issues may come, but not just yet.
“We have to understand the reality that faces us,” he said, emphasizing that “careful planning” of the downsizing of the diocese will be the key to success.
The bishop offered a “state of diocese” presentation Thursday during a meeting of the First Friday Club of Greater Youngstown at Antone’s Banquet Centre, 8578 Market St. The event attracted some 410 people — priests, nuns and Catholic laity.
The diocese compiled preliminary data last fall from parishes and schools. This data include statistics on membership, finances, staff, ministries and property, and its challenges, strengths and weaknesses.
Now, the bishop said, the pastoral planning team comprising priests, nuns and laity will analyze the information and a strategic plan will be formulated.
Bishop Murry’s methodical approach was first indicated when he was introduced Jan. 30, 2007, as the next leader of the Youngstown diocese. He responded to a question about its challenges with: “Ask me in a year, I need to talk to priests, the chancery staff and people about what makes the diocese tick.”
The bishop, installed March 28, 2007, spent the remainder of that year and into 2008 traveling the diocese that covers Ashtabula, Columbiana, Mahoning, Portage, Stark and Trumbull counties and includes 113 parishes, two missions, six high schools and 36 elementary schools. He continues to travel through the diocese.
Bishop Murry, as he has done in the past, reiterated that diocesan churches and schools face many challenges.
He said Catholics account for 22 percent of the population in the U.S., but they have moved from traditional Catholic strongholds in the Northeast to the Southeast and Southwest.
“The fastest growing Catholic population is in Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix,” the bishop said.
The number of registered Catholics in the Youngstown diocese was at 256,071 in 2002 and is at 215,467 today.
Bishop Murry pointed out priest availability will play a part in decisions for the diocese.
“There are 41,000 priests in the United States,” he said. In Youngstown, there are 101 active priests and 58 retired, though most remain involved in church activities.
The majority of priests are from 50 to 70 years old, he noted, and while there are 14 seminarians studying to be priests, there simply won’t be enough priests to replace those who will retire or die by the year 2013.
The bishop confronted the reality that young adult Catholics are “less committed and less familiar with Catholic teaching” than previous generations.
The bishop said the trends can be daunting. “Should we fold up our tents or change with the times?” he asked. “We want to craft a strategic plan in the light of the Gospel that will produce a strong and secure future for the diocese.”
Bishop Murry said the data on churches, schools, priests and other institutions within the diocese will be evaluated. “Then we will decide how to restructure,” he said, and he admitted that “some of these will cease to exist.”
He noted, however, that the churches and schools to comprise the diocese will be “spiritually, liturgically, financially stronger church institutions.” And he said, “Not everything will be crystal clear at every step of the process. Not all parishes and schools can wait ... they have financial problems now,” he said.
Regarding closing of elementary schools based at individual churches, the bishop said that diocesan or regional elementary schools are a possibility. He said one word — nuns — summed up the success of parish schools during the 1940s and ’50s. But as fewer women went into religious life, there were fewer nuns to teach.
“Now we have lay teachers who deserve a living wage,” Bishop Murry said, noting that translates into more money needed to operate schools.
The diocese also must be mindful of liability issues involved with closing buildings, he said.
Diocesan officials, parents discuss merger of two Austintown schools.