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April 16, 2017

Renew My Church pilot programs begin work

By Michelle Martin

Staff writer

Father Esequiel Sanchez, rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, leads a prayer after Benediction during vicariate III's "Festival of Forgiveness" at Resurrection Parish on March 24. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Father Sanchez blesses participants with the Eucharist. Parishes are expected to collaborate more under Renew My Church. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

For more than a year, Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago have been learning about and preparing for Renew My Church, the ongoing initiative to revitalize the church by making the best use of the resources — spiritual, human and financial — available.

Now, two groups of parishes, one in West Humboldt Park and one in the North suburbs, are getting a chance to see how the process will actually work. They started the pilot Renew My Church process in February and expect to give their final recommendations to the archdiocese in July.

Those recommendations will include how to change parish structures and allocate resources in their areas to better bring Christ to their people, in line with the seven signs of mission vitality laid out by Cardinal Cupich when he announced Renew My Church.

Each of the archdiocese’s 346 parishes have been put in one of 97 groups, and each group is expected to go through the process in the next three years.

For Father Bob Lombardo, the most important thing is to keep Christ at the center.

Lombardo, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, is director of the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, 3808 W. Iowa St., and has been deeply involved in the Renew My Church process, serving on the priests’ steering committee as well as leading one of the pilot organizations.

“We’re happy we’re part of the pilot,” Lombardo said. “I’m looking at it as a learning experience so that as we roll out the next stages of Renew My Church, it will be smoother.”

The West Humboldt Park parishes — St. Philomena, 1921 N. Kedvale Ave.; St. Francis of Assisi, 932 N. Kostner Ave.; Maternity B.V.M., 3647 W. North Ave.; and the mission of Our Lady of the Angels — have had a chance to review information about what it means to be a vibrant and vital parish, to understand the demographics and trends that impact decisions and to look at what each of them can offer.

Parishes used a tool called the “Disciple Maker Index” to look at where they are in terms of helping parishioners in their spiritual lives, and what they can do better.

After Easter, they will begin looking at drafts of ideas of how they can better collaborate “so that, to the best of our ability, we have a vibrant church presence in West Humboldt Park,” Lombardo said. “We have to prepare a good, effective, realistic pastoral plan for the church in this community.”

Lombardo said the parishes in West Humboldt Park are challenged by the extremely limited financial resources of their people. That means parishes struggle to pay staff a just wage, and the tuition for the group’s lone Catholic school, at Maternity B.V.M. Parish, is out of reach for many. Violence in the neighborhood makes some people afraid to leave their homes, especially at night, to attend meetings or other gatherings.

A high percentage of the Catholics in the area speak Spanish, Lombardo said, and there is a need to further engage youth and young adults in the mission of the church.

While it’s too early to say that the final plan will mean parish closures, it’s clear that something will have to change, if only because there will not be enough priests to staff the existing number of parishes. Projections show that by 2030, the archdiocese will have 240 priests eligible to serve as pastors; now it has 340 pastors serving 346 parishes.

At the same time, while the archdiocese counts 2.2 million baptized Catholics within Cook and Lake counties, the number of those attending weekend Masses in October 2014 was 422,000, or just under 20 percent.

Father Marty O’Donovan, pastor at Sts. Faith, Hope and Charity Parish in Winnetka, said the pilot grouping of parishes on the North Shore is looking forward to getting into demographic data and trends in its area later in April.

“We’ve been doing a lot of talking about values and what’s important,” O’Donovan said. “I think the demographics part is going to provide some focus. I think demographics are going to provide some focus.”

The parishes in the group with Sts. Faith, Hope and Charity are Sacred Heart, Winnetka; St. Philip the Apostle, Northfield; St. Francis Xavier, Wilmette; and St. Joseph, Wilmette. All of them except St. Philip the Apostle also have schools.

Because the parishes in the north suburban pilot group don’t have the same financial challenges that those in West Humboldt Park do, it’s unclear whether their members believe things will change all that much for them, O’Donovan said.

“I don’t think people have their heads around what the differences could be,” O’Donovan said.

That information will come soon, with drafts of possible changes expected to be discussed in June, he said.

The Renew My Church process also has offered everyone from pastors to people in the pews multiple opportunities to share their views and ideas. Parishioners were invited to respond to a survey before Easter 2016, and parishes will have their own teams working on the process as their groups get started.