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Steubenville-Columbus diocesan merger halted one week before vote at U.S. bishops’ meeting

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Diocese of Steubenville Bishop Jeffrey Monforton announced Monday that a proposed merger with the Diocese of Columbus will be put on hold.

Announced in early October citing several demographic and vocational concerns, the proposed merger between the two dioceses brought a host of negative feedback and disappointment from many within the diocese. Monforton’s announcement comes about a week before the U.S. bishops’ conference planned to vote on the merger at its annual meeting in Baltimore.

“Since the October 10th announcement of a proposed merger between the Diocese of Steubenville and the Diocese of Columbus, many have voiced their counsel, including disappointment and even fear,” Monforton wrote in his Nov. 7 letter to the diocese.

As part of his original October announcement on the merger, Monforton said that a survey was being prepared for the faithful on how to move forward. In his new announcement, he said that the survey’s results provided “further evidence of a division in the future vision for the Church’s service in the Ohio Valley.

When contacted on Wednesday, the Diocese of Steubenville directed CNA to the recent survey results in the diocese’s newspaper, The Steubenville Register. The more than 3,200 survey results, which numbers about 11% of Catholics in the diocese, reported that about 60% of respondents disapproved of the merger.

Some respondents in the survey inquired about the well-being of their priests if there was a merger. Others worried if the merger would result in closed parishes.

Continuing in his Nov. 7 announcement, Monforton said: “Therefore, I have requested the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to remove discussion of a merger and subsequent vote from the plenary session’s agenda at this time. There will be no vote next week. Further discussion regarding the Diocese of Steubenville’s future will be conducted at the diocesan level.”

Monforton originally announced the merger in a column for the diocese’s newspaper on Oct. 11.

In the column, Monforton cited several demographic trends that were driving factors behind the decision to merge the two dioceses.

“In 1990, approximately 24,730 people attended Sunday Mass in the diocese. In 2019, 13,700 attended Mass. That is a 45% decline. Even comparing figures from 2010-19 we realize there has been a 20% decline in those last nine years,” he wrote in the column.

He also mentioned that the diocese has six active priests 70 years or older, 12 in their 60s, five in their 50s, four in their 40s, seven in their 30s, and two in their 20s.

He wrote: “If all priests in their 60s would stay in active ministry 10 years from now, half of our active priests will be 70 or older. One may ask: Is this not the case for many dioceses?”

“We are more vulnerable due to the fact we are small in number, in priests and in Catholics,” he wrote. The rest of his column can be read here.

Following his column, more than 15 priests and two deacons penned a letter to the bishops of Ohio asking them to reconsider the merger.

“The reality is the Church is alive and vital, one filled with the faith of Jesus Christ,” the letter said, according to the diocese.

“The diocese has a Mass attendance rate of over 50 percent, certainly one of the highest in the country,” the letter said.

“We have significant challenges, but they are challenges the Diocese of Steubenville has faced from its very beginning and throughout its history. We have been meeting those challenges and we can continue to meet them if Your Excellencies allow us the opportunity,” the letter said.

According to The Intelligencer, almost 100 people, including clergy and religious, prayed for the diocese’s future in front of the chancery in late October.

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Steubenville-Columbus diocesan merger halted one week before vote at U.S. bishops’ meeting