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Q&A: Bishop Tylka provides details on ‘Growing Disciples’ assessment of Peoria diocese's 156 parishes

Catholic Diocese of Peoria Bishop Lou Tylka recently spoke with WCBU about the "Growing Disciples" pastoral planning program during an interview in his office at the Spalding Pastoral Center.
Joe Deacon
Catholic Diocese of Peoria Bishop Lou Tylka recently spoke with WCBU about the "Growing Disciples" pastoral planning program during an interview in his office at the Spalding Pastoral Center.

Catholic Diocese of Peoria Bishop Lou Tylka is overseeing a process to examine a decline in parishioner numbers coupled by a shortage of priests.

Tylka says the “Growing Disciples” pastoral planning program began last year to start the task of determining how to strengthen the diocese for the future.

In a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Tylka explains the Growing Disciples initiative and what it aims to accomplish.

This conversation and transcript have been edited for clarity and brevity.

What exactly is the Growing Disciples plan? What is its goal, and why is it necessary?

Bishop Lou Tylka: Growing Disciples is our pastoral planning program that we launched last year. We launched it with the priests in June, we launched it publicly with the whole diocese in August. It is a two-year process where we are looking at the reality of the church across the Diocese of Peoria, the 26 counties, our 156 parishes – knowing that things have changed: knowing our demographics have changed; knowing that we have fewer priests available to serve our parishes, we have fewer resources and we have fewer people in our pews – to assess how we can better set ourselves up to grow in the future.

One of the images I like to use from scripture when I think about our pastoral planning processes is that: in order to make good wine, you have to have good grapes, and in order to get good grapes, you have to prune the vines so that the nutrients can go to where the good grapes are growing. So the pastoral planning process is focused on building a sustainable, mission-driven, vibrant church for the future.

A lot of people might get hung up on the fact that part of this process is that we do have to look at our network of parishes and assess what parishes are best suited to see growth for the future and where might we need to prune the vines. But that is only the first kind of stage of the process, and we're only in early parts of that process at this point. As I said, it's a two-year process; it will not culminate with decisions until May of 2024. But these are the necessary tasks and decisions and discernment that needs to go on so that we can indeed figure out ways to better strengthen us for a brighter tomorrow.

As you said, you're asking priests and parish leaders to envision a “mission-driven, vibrant and sustainable parish for tomorrow.” What does that look like to you?

Bishop Tylka: When we look at the history of parishes, the reality of what a parish has been is not necessarily the reality today. Going back in history, parishes often were the center of life for a community. People not only came to the parish to worship and praise God and to celebrate the sacraments, they came for their social life. They were heavily involved in the activities of the parish, especially the charitable works of the parish.

In today's world, people socialized differently. The parish is still a necessary reality, and in fact, I think as the Holy Father (Pope Francis) says, the parish is one of the best things we have because it's adaptable and malleable to meet the needs of the world today, the church today. So, a vibrant, mission-driven parish for the future is, first and foremost, a place where people come to encounter Jesus Christ – to have an authentic encounter with the Lord, His love for them, and of course, that often happens most particularly in celebrating the sacraments. So a parish has to be centered on the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and provide a space for people to come and explore and encounter the Lord so that their hearts and lives can be transformed.

A parish also has to be a place where in coming together we see life; we see that there are other disciples on the journey with us, living out their faith and sharing the love that Jesus has for them. For instance, in a parish with a very small community, when you celebrate mass and there's only a handful of people in the congregation, it's still authentic worship and still can be an authentic place of encounter. But it's also a limited space, right? And yet, when you bring people together and you bring perhaps two or three parishes together into one worship space, there's a vibrancy there. There's a life there, there's an energy there, that isn't there when we're separated and you have a small community in one place and a small community in another place. So the vibrancy comes in, again, a sense of feeling the life and the movement of the spirit, and feeling that we're part of a bigger community that we can sometimes lose when we simply are maintaining a space because it's the one that's convenient.

What do you think are the reasons behind declining attendance at Mass?

Bishop Tylka: I think there's a lot of reasons why Mass attendance has declined. We are challenged in a world that's more and more secularized, a world that doesn't believe there's a need for God – or even if they see there's a need for God, the value of being a part of a community, the value of being able to share and have that experience of faith. Jesus himself, when he called disciples, he didn't just call one disciple; he called the group of 12 apostles and then they appointed more. So Jesus, from the start, was always showing us that being a person of faith, being a disciple, being a church is about being in community and being in relationship.

So while we have that hunger and we have that need within ourselves, we think that we can have those needs met in other areas, and I think we've learned that more and more – especially because of the experience of the (COVID-19) pandemic – that that's not the case. Again, we are fighting a secularized society; there's people who have become lukewarm in practicing their faith. There's just the inertia of laziness at times that prevent people from attending or going to celebrate the sacrament, especially the Eucharist. So there's a lot of factors and I think it's pretty, almost individual (where) a person makes that decision for themselves. Of course, we're always saddened by any person who chooses not to practice their faith. We're always here to welcome and encourage and invite back, as the Lord is, and there's so much more that we can receive when we do come and participate.

Are you concerned that this growing secularism, these declining attendance numbers might stem from questions of faith, or disillusionment with the Catholic Church?

Bishop Tylka: I'm concerned that anyone does not feel the desire, because I think it's part of who we are as children of God to have a relationship with Jesus, who is our Lord and Savior. I'm concerned for anyone who does not want or feel that they have the place or the space to explore the questions of faith. I think a lot of times people might not have, perhaps, the language or the awareness of those questions that are there, but they seem lost in trying to explore those questions.

I certainly understand how people can be disillusioned or disappointed in the church, whether it's the Catholic Church or any other church, any other community of faith. But the reality is that faith is in our God; the church is the gift that Jesus instituted and is a means for us to deepen that encounter and relationship with God. As a human institution, it's far from perfect; we know that.

Unfortunately, we have had issues with leadership, and we've had issues with people's experiences in the church that are hurtful or harmful to them. We need to repair those, we need to apologize for those, we need to grow from those mistakes. But we should not equate the failure of a given priest, bishop, or minister of the church with the whole church. There's so much good in the life of the church; there's so many blessings in the life of the church. So we can't discredit or turn away from what the church means to us and is for us because of one bad apple.

Are these changing demographics, these declining figures, are they also impacting enrollment at Catholic schools throughout the diocese?

Bishop Tylka: The changes in demographics in our diocese are occurring for many reasons, many beyond the control of the church. The demographics, obviously, will have an impact on the life of a parish and a school, based upon the number of people that live in any given area. As I have driven across our diocese – the 17,000 square miles that make up our 26 counties – I have been very blessed to witness the life of the church in so many of our churches and schools. But I've also been keenly aware of that I've been in towns and areas of the diocese where there's just literally no longer the people living there that once did. Towns that used to have 10,000 or more people living in them are now towns that have only 1,000-2,000 people living in them, or less.

Again, many of those reasons why people have moved out of those areas are not in the control of the church; they’re because of economic reasons, people not having jobs to be able to support their families. Changing demographics is that reality across the country; you can look at it from the perspective that people who lived in the Midwest and the Northeast have all moved to the South, where it's warmer. You can point out that in many smaller, rural communities, especially successive generations have looked to move to cities. These are factors and a reality that we simply have to deal with. Our ability as a church to continue to be present and to share the life of faith is that: we're still here. We may not be here in the same ways that we were 50 years ago or 100 years ago, when some of the towns across our diocese were thriving. But since our towns aren’t thriving now, we still have to maintain some way of our Catholic presence.

So I guess if I'm understanding you correctly, this process then could lead to potentially the closure or consolidation of some parishes and schools?

Bishop Tylka: Part of the process of Growing Disciples, our pastoral planning, is to really rethink, in a sense the way to say it, the “network” of parishes that we have across our 26 counties. Again, we currently have 156 parishes in our diocese. When we look at the future and look at the number of priests we will have available to pastor our parishes, that number is significantly smaller when you project out 10, 15, 25 years down the road. So we need to do things that will help us be able to meet the needs of our faithful in the future, in ways knowing that we will have diminished resources as far as the number of available priests to be pastors.

There is no decision that has been made yet (on) what that magic number is. What we do know is that we cannot sustain the network we currently have. So the hope is, through this process – again, which is a process of discernment and dialogue; there are stages to the process – that as it unfolds, together collectively as the church, we hopefully will be able to come to an awareness of what we think and believe will set us up best for growth in the future. But there will not be 156 parishes.

Each parish, as an individual parish, is required to have certain things, like a finance council and a parish council. When you have one priest who might have multiple parishes under his leadership, that means he's multiplying those councils and those things that are necessary and required to maintain a parish structure. If we can bring parishes together into one parish, perhaps with multiple churches, then we can combine those resources. We can bring those folks together in a way that makes it easier for the church to be governed and makes it easier for the priest to be able to minister.

In the end, that does mean we will likely have some parishes that will close. And it likely means that we'll have many parishes that will be united into a new reality. That way we can best set ourselves up to use to the best of our ability what God has given to us, both in our priests resources in the parishioners that are part of our parishes, as well as then their support of those communities.

What are the next steps in the Growing Disciples process?

Bishop Tylka: At this point, we are in conversation, dialogue with our priests (and) our diocesan commission, which is a commission of lay leaders that have been selected from each of our 12 vicariates. And in April, we will have conversations with our key parish leaders – leaders that have been selected by the pastors – to just talk about the affinities, the relationships of parishes across the diocese. In a sense, we call them our first models.

When we look at a model, what we did is look and say, “Parishes A, B, C and D are parishes that currently might be sharing a pastor, or currently might have some connections, might be sharing some ministry – are these the right parishes to further the conversation to the next stage?” So our first set of models and these conversations over the month of March and April is to listen and get the feedback from again our priests, our diocesan commission and our parish leaders, key parish leaders that have been selected, to make sure we're on the right track.

We'll take all of that information in, review all of that and reflect upon that to go into the further stages. So another stage, which will happen later this year in the fall, will confirm the reality of the affinities, the models of or groupings of parishes that we're talking about now, and then we'll take those to the next stage to say, “Now if these parishes A, B, C, and D, are the parishes that are supposed to be talking together, what are the possibilities? What are the realities that we can look at, towards the future with that group of parishes?”

So the whole process is designed to collect data and input, to share what we've learned, to again collect the data and input and feedback on what we've shared, to take that in, to repeat that process – and we're basically doing that three times between now and next spring. Ultimately, that then has to come to the bishop with a recommendation from the presbyteral council on what decisions need to be made.

Look for part two of our in-depth discussion with Bishop Tylka next week on WCBU.org.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.