Program #0321 for Friday, June 15, 2012: Fr. Paul Soper on Pastoral Planning

June 15, 2012

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Fr. Paul Soper on Pastoral Planning

Fr. Paul Soper on Pastoral Planning

Summary of today’s show: As both a pastor and interim director of pastoral planning, Fr. Paul Soper is living out the challenges and opportunity of the landmark process for which the Archdiocese of Boston is planning. Fr. Paul joins Scot Landry and Fr. Mark O’Connell to discuss the state of the pastoral planning process that will reorganize and restructure the Archdiocese so that it can embark on the mission of evangelization with new vigor. After seven months of the most extensive consultations in the history of the Archdiocese, the pastoral planning commission is preparing for the next phase in the process and Scot, Fr. Mark, and Fr. Paul take a moment to assess where we stand now.

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Mark O’Connell

Today’s guest(s): Fr. Paul Soper, Interim Director of the Office of Pastoral Planning

Links from today’s show:

Today’s topics: Fr. Paul Soper on Pastoral Planning

1st segment: Scot wished Fr. Mark a happy 22nd anniversary of ordination tomorrow. Scot welcomed Fr. Paul Soper back to the show as well. He asked Fr. Mark for the highlights of his ministry. He said he became friends with Fr. Paul even before seminary when they were in undergraduate at different Boston area colleges and looking into the priesthood. They were ordained together. Fr. Paul said he also treasures their friendship, but also added all the parishes and ministries he’s served. He loves being a priest and administering the sacraments.

Scot said Fr. Mark and Fr. Paul have served through many changes. He said we are in a moment of deep hope after a tough decade to begin this century. Fr. Mark said the last decade is personally significant because it corresponds with his work in canon law in the chancery and pastoral center.

Fr. Paul is pastor of St. Albert the Great Parish in Weymouth. Scot asked him what other assignments he’s had. His first five years were at St. John’s in Wellesley. From there he went to Lowell, where he was half-time in campus ministry at U. Mass Lowell and half-time at St. Rita’s. Scot recalls going to the 5pm Mass at St. Rita’s. Fr. Paul said UMass Lowell they had a 10pm Mass for students. From there he went to St. Anthony’s in Revere for three years. The day he started was the merger of three former parishes. Then he was assigned to St. Alphonsus in Beverly for seven months. It was a short time but significant. It was during Reconfiguration and they looked at their situation and the situation in Beverly, they decided to be very positive about the parish closing, including building a new church in the Dominican Republic with appointments transferred from St. Alphonsus. Fr. Paul described how the people ceremoniously closed their church. Scot said at the time he remembers thinking how this was the way one should go about this difficult process.

Then he was the pastor of two parishes in Dorchester. St. Williams and St. Margaret merged into Bl. Mother Teresa Parish. He said the people were wonderful, even if the finances were messy and difficult. They are now with three other parishes under a single pastor, Fr. Jack Ahern. One of the highlights was the formation of Pope John Paul Catholic Academy. His own school was about the close. They discussed the demolition of the old rectory in order to build a new gymnasium for the school. The rectory was falling apart so it needed to be done.

Then Fr. Soper went to St. Albert theGreat in February 2009. Weymouth is Fr. Paul’s hometown. At the time he’d been recuperating from an illness and the people were very accommodating. A lot of what Fr. Paul is doing now in determining what a parish is supposed to look like comes out of his experience at St. Albert.

On Ash Wednesday, the parish is open for 24 hours, midnight to midnight, with big signs outside inviting people to come in. They have teams of people the entire time. Fr. Paul heard a countless number of confessions on the Ash Wednesdays. They’ve had people who haven’t been in many years. They have people come in just before midnight. Nurses going in early tend to be the first ones in and policemen returning home after shift are the last. They then invite the people to come back on Good Friday and Easter. They give them a nail on Ash Wednesday and sk them to come back on Good Friday to nail it to a large cross.

Scot said often he’s thought that something innovative would be very effective. He asked where the ideas come from. Fr. Paul said they have a strong and active parish council, a creative liturgy committee that thinks about how to make the liturgies welcoming and evangelizing, open parish meetings every two months, and after every Sunday Mass and each weekday Mass, people gather in the church hall for hospitality.

Fr. Mark looks at the pattern of Fr. Paul’s life and sees how the Holy Spirit has prepared Fr. Paul for this particular task in pastoral planning.

Scot said when Fr. David Couturier had announced he was leaving as director of pastoral planning, Cardinal Sean asked Fr. Paul to be interim director while also remaining pastor. Scot said many priests are going to be asked to do double duty in coming decades. Fr. Paul said what he’s learned in doing these jobs apply to multi-parish ministry. He said St. Albert’s has had very strong lay leadership and the people have stepped in and filled in the gaps. Also, there have been a number of generous priests who have helped out, including other priests in Weymouth and local retired priests who are on call to help out on a moment’s notice. Fr. Paul Rafferty, retiring from St. Paul’s in Hingham, will be moving in to the parish to be in residence to help out. He said the people at the Pastoral Center have been very accommodating.

Most important is unity of mission. The mission of St. Albert the Great and the mission of pastoral planning is the same mission. They’re hoping to bring together parishes with one staff supporting one parish in accomplishing one mission, although in different sites. Parishes may be very different, the mission is the same. Although the priest may be drawn to different places with different responsibilities, it’s all in service of the same mission.

Scot said he found that having someone currently serving as pastor, who is in touch on a day to day basis with parishioners, as director of pastoral planning is great.

From December 2011 and the priestly convocation until today has been an intense period of consultation. Fr. Paul has attended 39 out of 40 of the consultation meetings. Scot asked Fr. Paul to reflect on what he’s heard and seen.

Fr. Paul said that to the best of his knowledge a process like this hasn’t happened in the archdiocese to this extent before.There was a synod of laity in 1988 of about 10,000 people over the course of a couple years and that the closest one. Fr. Paul said these weren’t always easy or short meetings, yet people turned out. Scot said the feedback was generally high-quality feedback and Msgr. William Fay said it would affect the work of the Pastoral Planning Commission.

Fr. Paul said the reason they did this extensive consultation was because the Cardinal said he wanted it. That was in the mandate of the commission from the very beginning. Msgr. William Fay was chosen as the chair of the commission because this is something he has great experience in.

Now that they’ve heard from everyone, it was always the intention to reflect the feedback in the proposal itself as well as the various groupings.

Fr. Mark asked Fr. Paul to explain how the process of making the changes was modified. Fr. Paul said there were three alternatives: everyone on the same day; do it by region; or do it by phases with parishes going as they are ready. The feedback was overwhelmingly in favor of the phased approach.

Fr. Mark said it was also originally proposed that no pastor would remain in the same parish. Fr. Paul said they changed that based on feedback as well. Almost everyone on the commission had been in favor of changing everyone because you wouldn’t want one pastor out of three to stay while the other two leave, creating an inequity in the situation of the parishes from the beginning. Then when they put it out to people, the people said No, that they trust their priests to work it out and that they are willing to work it out. People said moving everyone would create so much hurt it would drive everyone away. Fr. Paul said it’s not what the priests or people wanted. Fr. Paul said he doesn’t think he appreciated as much before how deep the appreciation for their priests and pastors is among the people.

Scot said the principle now is to find the best pastor of that grouping of parishes, whether it’s a priest from the parishes or from outside.Fr. Paul said it makes a lot of sense. they have decided to just trust that process of assigning priests will find the right priests.

Scot said some people say that some aren’t getting the connection between grouping parishes and the goal of better evangelization. Fr. Paul said the restructuring is only part of the pastoral plan. It doesn’t contain within itself the whole of the thrust of evangelization. For instance, Bishop Kennedy is now setting up an office focused on evangelization in the parishes.

Evangelization takes place within the context of the parish. Those parishes have o be strong and have sufficient resources to be mission oriented. Many parishes barely have enough to keep the lights on, never mind have sufficient staffing. Scot said many parishes are in a survival mentality. Fr. Paul said the structures we have now were built to support 70% of Catholics coming to Mass weekly. Now it’s less than 16%. Scot said it would have been 1.3 million versus 300,000. Those 300,000 have attempted to prop up a structure built for 1.3 million people through donations and volunteerism. There are areas where parishes would stronger with better stating.

There will also be the opportunity for substantial training of the pastors and pastoral teams and then of pastoral councils and finance councils in the practicalities of evangelization. He said they hope the new collaboratives will have the impetus to do that. He said they acknowledge there will be loss and grief, but there will also be excitement and excited, dedicated people are de facto evangelizing people.

When a person comes to the parish, what are they looking for? They’re not looking for people who are always arguing. Unity is attractive.

Fr. Mark said some of our people feel like survivors, but they need to feel like evangelizers. Fr. Paul said on Pentecost the disciples were comfortable in the upper room, but when the Holy Spirit came they went out and never went back to that room. There is a need for a fundamentally different vision. As a parish priest he spends 95% of his time with his parishioners, but in a circumstance where less than 16% are coming, does that make sense for almost all of his time to be spent with people who are coming to church.

Scot said he could free himself to go out where people are congregating. Fr. Mark said that when he did weddings in a parish, he went to the reception primarily to meet people who aren’t going to church and haven’t talked to a priest.

Scot said all the resources from the consultations and videos of talks are available at, including materials from last week from the priests’ convocation.

Fr. Paul said over the summer the commission will take everything from the consultation and craft it into a document to present to Cardinal Sean in the fall. He will bring that to others for their feedback. He could approve it or send it back for refinement. At the same time, the commission is working with auxiliary bishops and others to refine the lists of collaborating parishes. About half of the initial groupings were confirmed to be correct from the feedback in the consultations. Most of the remaining have an easy fix while the rest just need more time to think, consult, and see what happens. They’re not going to rush into anything because there’s plenty of time.

Fr. Mark said the biggest difference between this and Reconfiguration was then the idea was to do it and do it quick. Scot said we’ve learned a lot of what worked and what didn’t work. All that wisdom from those lessons back then will be part of the process in the future, to have the right pace.

Scot said the best idea he’s heard about evangelization was the idea of each family inviting another family to come to Mass with them. Each family can pray to be guided by the Holy Spirit to find another family at the right time with the right words. Fr. Paul said the Spirit is in the middle of the process and we have to trust.

Now as we do every week at this time, we will consider the Mass readings for this Sunday, specifically the Gospel reading.

Jesus said to the crowds:
“This is how it is with the kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and through it all the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.”

He said,
“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.

Scot said it’s one of his favorite parables. The thought of the smallest seed making one of the biggest plants is about the power of evangelization. We don’t know how many seeds we plant in life, but the Holy Spirit can bring tremendous fruit from them. Fr. Paul said it’s easy for us to overlook the mustard seed.

Fr. Mark said the reading corresponds with trusting the Holy Spirit. All of us needs to be planting seeds of faith in other peoples’ hearts and our own. He said Jesus knew how to communicate best, through teaching lessons through stories. Scot said Cardinal Seán loves to start his talks and homilies with stories too and he’s very effective with it. Fr. Paul said he gets his good stories from Fr. Mark.

Fr. Paul said St. Mark is his favorite of the Gospels. It’s clear and concise and every word has punch behind it.

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