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Vital & Vibrant

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As the Beacons of Light process ramps up and parishes take a look at who is part of their new Family of Parishes, the faithful may wonder how it will work and what the end result will look like. But members of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati already have one beacon they can turn to as an example.

The newly formed Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Reading, created from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Sts. Peter and Paul parishes, undertook their own research and eventual merger through a pastoral planning process that began two years ago under the leadership of pastor Father Matt Robben. It began when Father Robben saw a presentation from Catholic Leadership Institute in 2019 that inspired him to think more deeply about the vitality of his parishes.

“The presentation was called ‘The Five Truths of the Church Today,’” said Father Robben. “[The presenter] laid out a huge seismic shift that was happening – the sacramental freefall and what the Church is about to face. And part of that was a good percentage of the time, talent and treasure is all from Baby Boomers. And so, I wondered where ours came from and we started doing that research.”

The research included the two parishes’ numbers of households, donations and sacraments. “Looking at our families, once we get past the 55-74 [age range], we have less than 100 families between both parishes. And so that was kind of shocking for us,” said Father Robben. “I had a two week period where I had nine funerals and both parishes lost over $35,000 in giving that week. You don’t think of it that way, but when you look at the numbers, that’s not being replaced by anything. So we had to start thinking long term.”

Father Robben met with pastoral and finance councils about the data and they agreed to bring it to the attention of parishioners at both parishes. In order to do that, a meeting was held for all families to attend at the end of October 2019. Additionally, they created information folders and made them available to all parishioners.

“At the initial meeting when I gave out all the statistics, I asked [parishioners] to take it home, pray about it, and then I gave them multiple ways of forming questions,” said Father Robben. “From that came nominations from the parish for members for my Futures Committee.”

He added, “Through most of the [committee’s] discussions, the thought was that if we want to keep a parish in Reading, we need to do something now to make this stable for the future.”

After much discernment, discussion and prayer, the committee ultimately decided the best way to secure a future for a Catholic church in Reading was to merge Sts. Peter and Paul and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart into one parish that could build on the strengths of both. Despite the need for such a solution, it didn’t come without heartache.

“There are still people out there who are upset, and there’s going to be. And I don’t blame them. We’re talking about completely shutting down Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and moving down to the [Sts. Peter and Paul] campus,” said Father Robben. “That’s a parish they’ve been in all their lives. There’s a lot of pain and frustration in that. I’ve met and talked with many people. Just walked them through it. Once they took the time, they understand, but it doesn’t make the pain go away.”

Combining parishes meant selecting one church building. The committee rated both campuses through the lenses of SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). “Ultimately both campuses have great strengths and great weaknesses. The driving factor for coming to Sts. Peter and Paul was the location in terms of ministry,” said Father Robben.

The Sts. Peter and Paul Church campus has a large and active St. Vincent de Paul Society that ministers to walk- ins seeking basic needs. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart ministers to outside organizations, such as pregnancy centers. Only one campus offered the opportunity to continue the ministries of both parishes. Ultimately the majority decided to locate the combined parish at the Sts. Peter and Paul campus. Father Robben said they plan to rent Our Lady of the Sacred Heart campus to a new charter school.

As of July 2, 2021, the new combined parish is officially up and running, and Father Robben has high hopes. “I’ve created a bunch of different committees – evangelization committees, communication committees. They’re all actively working. I’m excited to see what comes out,” he said.

As Families of Parishes in the archdiocese prepare to undergo a similar discernment process with Beacons of Light, Father Robben has this advice to offer: “Pray. Prayer is a big part of it because it opens your heart to hear what God’s will is and that’s not always easy. Also, you have to be patient with those who are still struggling. Because there’s going to be a sense of pain and there’s going to be loss. But also always keep your focus on the end goal. The end goal is vital, vibrant parishes that flourish and attract people.

So if we keep our eyes on what the goal is, I think Jesus will lead us in the right direction.”

This article appeared in the October edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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