For tens of thousands of Catho- lics in the Youngstown Diocese, Sunday mornings have been much the same for most of their lives. They sit in familiar pews, bathed in the light from the same stained-glass windows and feel a sense of security beneath the same statues of saints whose features they studied as children.
They have accepted change over the years — Latin was replaced by English in the liturgy, lay ministers now help priests distribute communion and deacons assume some of the responsibilities once carried by the priest. And now, some of them are facing the biggest change of all, a loss of parish identity.
Religion is a matter of faith, but operating churches is very much a matter of mathematics. That reality has forced Bishop George V. Murry to make some difficult choices, following a process that has covered nearly two years.
There are about 45,000 fewer Catholics in the diocese than just a decade ago, there are fewer priests today than at any time in modern history and there will be fewer still tomorrow. There are 96 priests in the diocese, about 1 for every 2,200 parishioners. But more are between 60 years old to 70 years old — 45 of them — than are between 30 years old and 60 years old — 37 of them.
The number of parishes will be reduced from 112 to 87 through consolidation and collaboration over a period of two years, but few buildings have been identified as subject to closure. Eventually some buildings will have to be abandoned, which is when the hardest reality of change will hit home.
Bishop Murry and his team have worked hard to prepare the diocese for the realities of downsizing, but ultimately success will be achieved one parish and one parishioner at a time.