When I’m tempted to feel overwhelmed by the challenges before me, I think of my first predecessor, Bishop Michael J. O’Connor, who was installed to lead the newly created Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1843. In those days, the diocese had just 16 priests to serve 40 parishes across 19 counties in the commonwealth. In each of those parishes and in every one of those counties, Bishop O’Connor championed outreach to everyone: every nationality, every race with the help of his priests.
He also brought seven Sisters of Mercy from Ireland to bring the Gospel to the poor. Not long after their arrival in Pittsburgh, they founded the first hospital west of the Allegheny Mountains, a hospital named after them: Mercy. Their love for people of every creed won the hearts of many. Their life and witness remind us that evangelization and ministry don’t depend on buildings or on an abundance of personnel.
That is what the planning initiative “On Mission for the Church Alive!” is all about in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. Bishop O’Connor and the Sisters of Mercy didn’t try to recreate what they had known in Europe. Instead, they looked at the situation and the needs of the people around them.
Bishop O’Connor dispatched circuit-riding priests to bring Mass to isolated rural parishes at least once a month. He built orphanages for the children whose parents succumbed to rampant disease or accidents. With patience and reason, he defended the faith against all arguments and charges against it. When he was transferred from Pittsburgh in 1860, the number of parishes had doubled to 41. The number of priests more than quintupled to 82.
This focus on outreach is what I hope to see again in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Today, we have 192 parishes and serve in six counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania. We as Catholics need to restructure our church for the needs of today. We need to be like Bishop O’Connor, who looked at his territory, the people within it and the resources at his disposal, asking: “How excited are we about our faith? How do we bring the love and mercy of Jesus to the communities where we are?”
Our local mission territory has changed. So has our church. Some of this is due to the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s. Many young families moved away. The local population grayed. But it is also due to a loss of faith — a growing number of people who neither know Jesus nor even know about Him.
Mass attendance has declined 40 percent since 2000. The number of Catholic marriages in this diocese has dropped by 50 percent in that same 15 years. The number of priests likewise has shrunk in the same period, from 338 in 2000 to 216 today and is expected to drop to 112 by 2025.
If the streets within what was once an Italian or Polish ethnic parish in our diocese are now filled with people who speak Spanish, Korean or Vietnamese, then we must do whatever it takes to make them feel welcome in church.
If parents don’t participate in Mass because they are so busy, then we must do whatever it takes to convince them to make time for God.
And when those people return, we must do whatever it takes to put out the welcome mat through lively worship, spirited preaching and genuine service to others.
That is what “On Mission for the Church Alive!” is all about — to better learn Jesus, love Jesus and live Jesus. And after all, isn’t that the reason why Jesus founded the church?
David Zubik is the bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.