True evangelization is ‘not accomplished by anyone working alone,’ archbishop says; family groupings to be announced Dec. 9

DETROIT — Heroic trust in the Holy Spirit and a firm resolve to move forward “on mission” are at the heart of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s transition to “families of parishes,” Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said Nov. 22 in a new pastoral note.

Released on the feast of Christ the King and the fourth anniversary of the archdiocese’s Synod ’16, the note, titled “Led by the Spirit on Mission,” is the culmination of months of discernment since Archbishop Vigneron announced the next phase in the archdiocese’s missionary journey at Pentecost.

Watch live: Archbishop Vigneron addresses archdiocese, 11 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 22

In it, the archbishop lays out the convictions and principles that will guide the archdiocese’s transition to “families of parishes” — groupings of three to six parishes that will work together, sharing human and material resources to advance the mission of evangelization.

The final list of parish families, which is expected to be released Dec. 9, was compiled after months of discernment and input from priests, bishops and lay leaders, the archbishop said. The transition will be made in two waves, with roughly half of parishes transitioning beginning July 1, 2021, and the second half starting in July 2022.

People pray at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth. Under the new “family of parishes” structure, each individual parish would retain its identity, but would work more closely with neighboring parishes. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

While each of the archdiocese’s 200-plus parishes will join a new family, “each parish in a family will retain its own unique identity, similar to how each sibling has his or her own unique role in the family,” the archbishop noted.

The overall vision is modeled after structures successfully implemented in other dioceses, including London, Ont., and the Archdiocese of Boston, in which parishes “collaborate by sharing resources – including priests, deacons, and staffs across parish lines – to further advance the mission Christ has entrusted to his Church.”

In his homily from the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, the archbishop said the feast of Christ the King is a “fitting day” to release the note, given what Christ teaches about the need to strive together toward the kingdom.

A new way to unleash the Gospel

In the pastoral note, Archbishop Vigneron identifies the key reasons for the archdiocese’s transition — including a well-publicized priest shortage — but emphasized its continuity with the vision of the archdiocese’s Synod ’16.

“When Unleash the Gospel (the archbishop’s post-synodal pastoral letter) was published on Pentecost 2017, I committed our local Church to follow wherever the Holy Spirit would lead us in the coming years,” the archbishop said.

“There have been many moments for putting into action the work of the Synod, and now we reach an especially critical time for the implementation of the Synod’s work,” he said. “Our new model of Families of Parishes, announced at Pentecost of this year, is a continuation for the fruits of Synod ’16 and Unleash the Gospel.”

Just as the synod called for parishes to be “Spirit-led and radically mission-oriented,” so families of parishes must also be aligned and equipped for evangelization.

People volunteer at St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills during the archdiocesan-wide Mercy in Action Day of Service on Oct. 17. St. Fabian joined with nearby St. Gerald and Our Lady of Sorrows parishes for the service effort, a preview of the types of collaborative ministries parishes might undertake in the years ahead. (James Silvestri | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“The structures we inherited for our parishes served us well in the past, but we know from Synod ’16 … that parishes need to be realigned for mission,” the archbishop said, adding discernment also was shaped by the Vatican’s recent document on parish planning, “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church.” 

Drawing on the themes of Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Vigneron enjoined the faithful to embrace habits that foster a greater trust and abandonment to Jesus, who commanded his apostles to “go forth and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:16-20).

“This is not some off-hand passing remark of our Lord,” the archbishop said. “This is his charter for the first generation of disciples and their successors. It is the charter for the Church in Detroit — and for you and me.”

Although the pandemic, racial unrest and a contentious election have disrupted normal ways of ministry, “we are reminded that all people have a right to hear the Gospel proclaimed,” the archbishop said.

“A task of this magnitude is not accomplished by anyone working alone. We need a new spirit of cooperation and a commitment to working together,” he said. “This must be coupled with a spirit of innovation. Having a missionary mindset requires a willingness to try new things, even to fail at times, in an effort to advance the Gospel.”

Renewing the priesthood

Among the chief reasons for the switch to families of parishes is the need to renew the priesthood, which has become stretched thin by a seemingly endless list of administrative tasks as the number of priests overall continues to shrink.

“Prior to the pandemic, we have faced a priest shortage that stretched our pastors between many responsibilities,” the archbishop said. “By God’s grace, many of our faithful have not experienced a diminishment in the level of priestly care they receive, even with fewer priests in ministry.”

However, as burdens rise, priests face the very real danger of burnout — or “spiritual lethargy,” as the archbishop put it.

Fr. Socorro Fernandes, SAC, prays before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Our Lady of Loretto Parish in Redford. Priests must recommit themselves to prayer, Archbishop Vigneron says in the pastoral note. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

In a section of the pastoral note addressed to priests, the archbishop said priests must recommit themselves to prayer — no matter how busy they might be.

“We are not merely functionaries of the grace of redemption, like ecclesiastical civil servants or sacramental vending machines,” the archbishop said. “Like all the faithful, we are infinitely loved by Jesus! … There is nothing more important we will do for our parishioners than to more deeply fall in love with Jesus Christ.”

While priests are given the three-fold ministry of sanctifying, teaching and governing the faithful, Archbishop Vigneron noted that in Jesus’ Great Commission, he focuses exclusively on the first two.

“That third duty of governance often proves to be among the chief challenges faced by priests in our times,” he said. “I often hear from priests who find themselves spending disproportionate amounts of time and energy each day on the ‘worldly’ tasks of running their parishes. While I am grateful for their selfless attention to these important details, I cannot help but notice the increased need we have for priests to be free to recommit their efforts more fully to teaching and to administering the sacraments.”

In the new structure, priests will share their ministry with other clergy assigned to the parish family, providing both an increased sense of brotherhood and mutual support for such tasks.

“It can be a great temptation in priestly ministry to become a ‘lone ranger,’ isolated from other priests,” the archbishop said. “Working together as a team will help them build each other up: ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.’”

Fr. Joseph Horn, pastor and rector of the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, preaches a homily. While some parishes such as Shrine currently have multiple priests, under the “families of parishes” structure, each family will have multiple priests caring for a group of three to six parishes. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

While priests won’t necessarily live together as a result of the switch, “they will be working together, praying together, and planning together for their parishes,” the archbishop said. “I am certain that happier, healthier and holier priests will make happier, healthier and holier parishes, which will in turn ensure a happier, healthier and holier Archdiocese of Detroit.”

Mission direct

Collaboration among parishes isn’t new. Rather, it’s been a fact of life for several decades — a fact that should be celebrated and built upon, Archbishop Vigneron said.

“In the past four decades, we have seen parishes coordinating Advent Reconciliation Services, Lenten Missions and Mass schedules,” he said. “Some of our parishes have shared staff positions, faith formation programs or pastors. A few have shared buildings and worship sites. In the months and years ahead, new and innovative ways to work together will strengthen the bonds that already exist and will build new bonds everywhere else.”

To better align each new parish family for mission, staffing structures will be categorized as either “mission direct” or “mission support,” the archbishop said — a staffing reality that already exists in the archdiocesan Curia.

“Mission direct staff positions are those ministries which touch most directly the mission of our parishes: to create a band of joyful missionary disciples,” he said. “These positions are the ones we might already term ‘ministry positions’ or ‘lay ecclesial ministers,’ such as catechists, youth ministers and pastoral associates.”

Sr. Kathleen Matz, DC, smiles during a meeting with Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish staff in Grosse Pointe Woods in 2019. Half of the archdiocese’s 216 parishes will begin to operate as families of parishes by July 2021, with the second half making the transition by July 2022. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

For years, the Church has been blessed by the contributions of talented, faithful lay servants, who will continue to play a large role in families of parishes, the archbishop said. As parish families come together, each grouping will determine how best to work together to make these contributions on a family-wide scale.

“We will adopt new positions, new titles and new organizational structures for parish staffs in the months ahead to help all our families of parishes flourish,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “Furthermore, we will provide formation for those in new positions to assure that we are not simply changing titles, but are effectively focusing on being more missionary.”

Mission support

While evangelization remains the primary focus for families of parishes, it’s essential that each parish family also have the right support personnel to function efficiently and smoothly, the archbishop said.

“Pastors rely heavily on business managers, bookkeepers, human resource professionals, IT experts, maintenance staff and others to do the work for which they often are not equipped,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “While the governance of parishes must always ultimately reside in the pastors, they must have competent and trustworthy collaborators in this work.”

Many positions classified as “mission support” will provide support to multiple parishes within a family “to allow for a renewed efficiency,” the archbishop said.

“The more resources we can dedicate to the missionary work of our parishes, the better they can be mobilized for evangelization, to which ‘every activity and resource of the parish must be in alignment,’” he said, quoting from Unleash the Gospel’s second action step.

Fr. Doug Bignall, pastor of St. Hubert Parish in Harrison Township, meets with family members while planning a funeral. Pastors rely heavily on qualified lay ministers to help shoulder the burden of administration, and will benefit from a newly created “director of mission support” position, which will coordinate administrative staff across the parish family. (Courtesy photo) 

To that end, each parish family will have a newly established position, a “director of mission support,” who will oversee such positions across the family and report directly to the lead pastor or moderator of the parish family.

“As we begin this transition in our families in the months ahead, we will need to pray especially for a spirit of collaboration,” the archbishop said. “Change, especially change in one’s work, can present stress, doubt, and uncertainty about the future. I ask each of you to pray for a new openness to this renewal and collaboration, knowing that God is particularly generous when we pray for graces to better evangelize.”

Family strategic planning

Once each parish family is established and running — which is expected to take place by July 2022 — each family will be asked to develop a “family missionary strategic plan,” similar to the individual plans a handful of parishes had begun to develop before the pandemic hit, Archbishop Vigneron said.

While the archbishop didn’t specify a date for when such plans would be developed, he indicated it would take place “in the not-too-distant future.”

“These plans will empower families to discern how best to accomplish the work of unleashing the Gospel in their communities,” he said. “In addition, the plans will be something around which the parishes within the newly formed families can collaborate and thus grow closer together.”

Each individual parish had been asked to develop a “missionary strategic plan” as a way to incorporate the fruits of Synod ’16 and Unleash the Gospel at the grassroots level. While the individual plans were halted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of missionary transformation must continue, the archbishop said.

Fr. J.J. Mech, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, goes over blueprints for an apartment complex in development across the street. Once “families of parishes” are established, each parish grouping will develop its own “missionary strategic plan” to collaborate and grow closer together. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“Synod ’16 gave us the daunting task of transforming our entire archdiocese and committing all our resources for mission. This is not something we can look at once and then put up on a shelf. Rather, we have been presented with the work of a generation,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

In the months leading up to the first wave of families of parishes in June 2021, parishes will hear more about these plans, he said.

As the Church digests and begins to adopt the new parish structures, Archbishop Vigneron encouraged the archdiocese to look to Mary, the Star of the New Evangelization, as a model of holiness, docility to the Holy Spirit and a guiding light pointing to her divine son.

“Mary led the disciples in prayer from the time of Jesus’ ascension until the coming of the Holy Spirit,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “But her role was not diminished after they received the Holy Spirit. She continues to guide the Church as she ‘inspires us with a sure confidence that the Lord hears and will not fail to answer.’

“I have great trust that Mary will guide us, too, through this Families of Parishes initiative,” he added.

Families of Parishes

To learn more about the Archdiocese of Detroit’s transition to families of parishes, visit familiesofparishes.org or check out Detroit Catholic’s previous coverage, below. Read Archbishop Vigneron’s pastoral note, “Led by the Spirit on Mission,” here.