My home diocese, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, has been participating in an intensive parish planning process called Connected in the Spirit for the past few years. Last week, our Archbishop announced the latest changes and recommendations that came out of the process, affecting the parishes of the Indianapolis deaneries. Most local Catholics see Connected in the Spirit as being all about closing parishes – and, indeed, including last week’s announcements, 17 parishes will have been closed. This is a painful period for many people, particularly those who called these parishes home. But that’s not all that Connected in the Spirit has been about – it is really about discerning how best to accomplish the mission of the Catholic Church in a changing world. Some parishes are being encouraged to collaborate with neighboring parishes on programs like evangelization and youth ministry that they might not be able to sustain on their own. Other parishes are sharing pastors and staff members. Others are being encouraged to form collaborative efforts in areas of community outreach or Hispanic ministry. For me, one of the most important tenets of Connected in the Spirit is that individual parishes cannot – and should not – exist in isolation. Rather, parishes must work together with neighboring parishes and the larger Archdiocese to most effectively minister in today’s world. This is not an easy mindset, because we Catholics have a history of strong parochialism and parish rivalry that has resulted in every parish trying to do everything on its own. That model just can’t be the reality anymore, and Connected in the Spirit hopes to change the way parishes and their ministries are structured.

But my main reason for writing a reflection on Connected in the Spirit comes from my current ministry as Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Many people point to a shortage of priests being the reason for the changes being made through this process – that we don’t have enough priests to staff the parishes that we have, so some of those parishes need to close. Obviously, my work in vocations is critical to this conversation. And I would argue that a perceived shortage of priests is not the primary motivating factor behind the changes of Connected in the Spirit. In fact, the three major changes announced last week – the closure of three Indianapolis parishes that are being merged into neighboring parishes – do not change the number of priests needed for these ministries at all. All three of these parishes had already been sharing a pastor with the parish they will be merging into. So, before the changes, there were three priests serving six parishes. After the changes, there will still be three priests, but they will be serving three parishes, but with the same number of parishioners as before.

So what is at work here more than number of priests is health and vitality of priests. It is not easy for a priest to serve multiple parishes, regardless of how close they are to each other. In addition to the travel back and forth, there are typically more meetings to attend, more facilities to manage, more paperwork to complete, more overall administration to attend to. Merging parishes can aid in the health and vitality of our priests by reducing the amount of administration that must be done. And when the facilities that are being used were built for much larger communities than they currently have – as populations have shifted considerably in recent years – the merging of parishes can be the best stewardship of all of our resources. None of this makes the process of change and merger easy – but it helps us take the best care of our human – priestly – resources so that they can be most effective in their ministry, as well as recognizing the effects of changing populations. It’s not just about numbers of priests but about health and vitality of priests and their ministry.

Now, it could be asked whether we would be making these decisions if we had twice as many priests as we do currently – if we had enough priests so that the parishes that have been or will be closed would be able to have their own pastor, would the same decisions have been made? Ultimately, that would be up to the Archbishop and his advisers, but I don’t know that an overabundance of priests would have changed the outcome of this planning process. I imagine that if we had large additional numbers of priests, we would first assign them to our high schools and colleges full-time, ministries where we are not currently able to have full-time chaplains. I imagine that we might assign more priests to our hospitals and prisons and outreach centers – all the other pastoral care ministries in which priestly ministry is critical. It is in these non-parish ministries that we see the current effect of fewer numbers of active priests than in previous years, not necessarily in our parishes.

So what are we doing to help the Archdiocese of Indianapolis attract and form priests for the future? Perhaps in a future post I will talk more about the current plan for vocations outreach in the Archdiocese, but here’s an overview. We are working with our pastors to give them the tools and resources to encourage priestly and religious vocations – a joyful priest who is present to the young people of his parish is the most important factor for a young man to consider the priesthood. One of our most successful programs is Called By Name, in which priests and parishioners are asked to nominate young men and women who have qualities that would make a good priest or religious and who are then invited to a dinner with the Archbishop. We are also helping parishes create or sustain Vocations Committees and providing them with resources to keep priestly and religious vocations front-of-mind for parishioners. I have a regular presence at youth and young adult events around the Archdiocese, and through these events work to form relationships with young people who may by open to the priesthood or religious life. This coming year, we plan to work especially with our Catholic high schools and college campus ministry centers to help them develop and implement creative and effective vocations promotion efforts. And there is much more.

In the end, as I mentioned earlier, the presence of a joyful priest in our parishes and schools is the most effective way to promote priestly vocations. If, through Connected in the Spirit, we are able to increase the health and vitality of our priests by easing administrative duties and collaborating in ministries, then they will in turn be better equipped to promote priestly and religious vocations. In fact, if you read the formal decrees for all of the parishes that have participated in the Connected in the Spirit process, promoting priestly and religious vocations is one of the primary ministries that are looked to to demonstrate the vitality of a parish and on which parishes are encouraged to focus and collaborate. As the Archdiocesan Office for Priestly and Religious Vocations, we are here to help our parishes and pastors in this important ministry.