When Bishop Mitchell Rozanski came to St. Louis in August 2020 to lead the more than 400,000 Catholics in that region, one of his first encounters was with a group of young priests.
They said something to him that brought back memories of his hometown of Baltimore. “They were expressing concerns that they were ordained to serve people,” Rozanski told me in a recent interview. “They had become caretakers of buildings rather than ministers of the people.”
For 60 years, the Catholic Church of St. Louis has mirrored its city, with a decline in population and a move away from the congregation of some historic buildings that cost enormously to maintain. As a young priest, Rozanski served two parishes located within three blocks of each other in South Baltimore, a city that shares many characteristics with St. Louis. Some of the complex’s nine buildings were constructed before the Civil War.
“Their concerns resonated with my experience as a young pastor,” Rozanski says.
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Now, nearly two years later, Rozanski is poised to lead the Archdiocese of St. Louis on a mission of overhaul, in a process intended to reinvigorate the faithful, restructure the parish concept, and shift resources from ‘a way that makes more sense that congregations have migrated away from their historic immigrant neighborhoods.
Called “All Things New” and unveiled in Catholic parishes in St. Louis this week, the process is sure to impact the entire region as eventually some church buildings, parishes and schools will be closed or merged, and the church seeks to invigorate its congregations in evangelizing its neighbors.
“A vibrant Catholic Church leads to a vibrant community, which leads to a vibrant city,” says Reverend Chris Martin, one of those young priests Rozanski met. He helps plan this effort of prayer, reflection and transformation that has been going on for years.
Martin offers some numbers to help explain the problem facing the Archdiocese. There are about 30,000 Catholics in the region that encompasses the city and southern county of St. Louis, Martin said, with 26 priests to serve them. In Cottleville and Dardenne Prairie, St. Charles County, there are roughly the same number of Catholics served by just six priests. About half of the Catholics in the Archdiocese are concentrated in 27 parishes; the other half is spread over 151 parishes.
There are currently approximately 200 full-time priests in the Archdiocese of St. Louis to serve 178 parishes. Martin says the number of priests is expected to drop to 150 by 2030 and 130 a decade later.
“If we don’t do the planning, the planning will be done for us,” says Martin.
That process will begin with hundreds of listening sessions this fall, with the archdiocese offering a first glimpse of what the new plan for parishes might look like. The church is bringing in a consultant, the Catholic Leadership Institute, which has helped the archdioceses of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh go through similar processes. In Cincinnati, for example, the archdiocese has reorganized 208 parishes into 60 “parish families.”
Rozanski hasn’t been in St. Louis long, but he knows the deep sense of parochialism and historical connection to the neighborhood will make this process difficult for some Catholics. That pattern served the church well more than a century ago, Rozanski says, but it’s broken now, and the church needs to refocus its mission on the people it serves.
“We still rely on a church model based on 18th century European immigration patterns,” Rozanski says. “This model is finished. … What we take the time to do is assess where we are as a church right now, and what do we need to do to evangelize better.
That word — to evangelize — is rooted in Catholic tradition, Rozanski says, to “go out and make disciples of Christ,” but it’s not something the Catholic Church has done very well in recent decades. He needs to learn from some of his fellow Christians, he says, who do a better job of simply meeting people where they are and offering them a path to faith.
This is one of the reasons the Archbishop was present at the event at the International Institute earlier this month, as civic leaders seek ways to welcome more Afghan immigrants to the city. . The church can play a role in this process, Rozanski says, and it shouldn’t be tied to a specific neighborhood or parochial interest.
“These discussions will affect our church for the next 50 to 75 years,” Rozanski says of what he knows will be difficult conversations over the next two years. “We’re a church, so we’re not just going to rely on numbers. We will go through the mission.