A Letter from Fr. Jan Schmidt

October 03, 2021

Many of you probably remember Fr. Jan Schmidt who was the pastor of St. Margaret of York from 2008 - 2016. He is currently the Director of Pastoral Vitality for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and Rector of the Cathedral Basilica. Fr. Jan holds a primary leadership role in the Beacons of Light planning initiative below is part one of a four-part series we have been invited to share with all of you.  

Dear Parishioners and Visitors to the Cathedral Basilica,

As my parishioners know well I am not only the Rector of this great cathedral basilica. Like many of our priests today I actually have two jobs, two important areas of ministry for which I am responsible. Our interaction, of course, leads from my being the Rector of the cathedral basilica but my primary ministry is actually that of the Director of Pastoral Vitality for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. 

Working with direct responsibility to the Archbishop, this is a role in which I am presently responsible for offices that oversee African American Pastoral Ministries, Divine Worship & Sacraments, Ethnic Initiatives & Apostolates, Health & Hospital Ministries, Incarceration Ministries, Mission & Pontifical Mission Societies, Parish Vitality, and Pastoral Planning.

It is in my responsibility for the Pastoral Planning Office that I have the primary leadership role for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Beacons of Light multi-year planning initiative, an effort Archbishop Schnurr has called the most comprehensive and important undertaking in the two-hundred-year history of the archdiocese.

The purpose of Beacons of Light is to provide for us in this archdiocese a vision of life as the People of God in this particular place and time as Catholic Christians. I will be writing more about the effort in a short series that will follow for the next couple of weeks but the best place to get the low-down is by going to the Beacons of Light website …. Just Google “Beacons of Light” and you’ll find the URL, or simply use www.BeaconsAOC.org. 

Prior to my taking on the responsibility for the offices aforementioned as well as the offices for evangelization (more on that later) in July of 2016 the archdiocese had conducted a study, actually a survey and interviews of its pastors. What was learned was their attitudes and opinions on how their lives were being affected by the dwindling numbers of priests available for parish ministry and the resultant ever-increasing workload they were having to bear.

It is important to understand that at our high point in our history as an archdiocese in 1971we had 417 active diocesan priests and 417 active religious priests assigned to various ministries. Today we are approaching 125 active diocesan priests and far, far fewer religious priests who are available for ministry in our 210 parishes.

Over the two-hundred-year history of our archdiocese, we have had established 306 parishes in the nineteen counties of south and western Ohio that comprise the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. With 210 remaining one can easily calculate that we have for many different reasons already closed 96 parishes. Mostly this has happened due to shifting populations. Catholics move from the farm to the city, they move from the urban areas to the suburban areas, they move to where the jobs are, and they move to where the weather is warmer just like everyone else and they leave their parishes behind. 

As you can see the numbers are not working out for us in this particular age of man. In January of 2019, we had a meeting at which 32 of our priests came together on a very snowy day in Dayton to talk about the results of those interviews. It was a very, very positive meeting that was full of hope for what was needed and what could happen. One of our younger pastors remarked that we must begin to move from “maintenance to mission” it is the only way to build and enliven our Church that has suffered from its various “maladies” these last twenty plus years. We have adopted his words for all that we are planning for our future.

I left that meeting quite excited but also aware that we must move quickly to bring about a Church that is fully alive while at the same time set into place a Church that is manageable for our immediate future … a Church in which there will be disappointment and grief in order to set ourselves up for a future of joy and expectation leading to growth. A Church in which we see the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of our God and His people ever-present in our Catholic communities of faith.

Since that January meeting of pastors, I previously mentioned there has been a flurry of activity that brings us to a very important meeting happening this Wednesday, September 29. In the interim period, we have been busy building a team who are working in my department to bring about all of the various facets of the plan for Beacons of Light.  I have also given up my responsibility for the Evangelization side of my department so as to focus on this important endeavor. 

This archdiocese has spent the last thirty-five years plus planning. Each of those three plans, while well-conceived and executed were believed to be the only plan we would ever need … we all, of course, know how that can go, the first lead to the second and onward due to the changing circumstances of the times. I’m not going to try and fool anyone as I am certain this will not be the last plan needed. The circumstances will continue to change. However, for at least the next ten years we feel pretty confident in what is being proposed to direct us in dealing with a profound lack of resources of varied kinds. 

The Church in our part of the world suffers today for many reasons; lower birth rates, populations moving to other parts of the country and thus fewer numbers of the faithful to occupy our churches. Many of our people, especially younger adults, have left the practice of the faith. With that reality comes a decline in stewardship of time and talent as well as Sunday offerings, making it difficult to continue to be able to support the infrastructure and ministries of our multitude of parishes presently in place. With the above there is also the decline in the number of men who have been ordained priests over the last fifty years … all of this has caught up with us and will continue to affect us for the foreseeable future.

An aside, it is true, our seminary is doing quite well and as of the beginning of this academic year, the archdiocese has fifty men studying at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary of the West. We should be very proud and very hopeful in those numbers. The downside, however, is that we are in the midst of a period when we have a very large number of priests who are and will be retired. By July 1, 2022, we will have only 125 active priests …. think about that when we have 210 parishes gathered in 109 Regions.

As you can see, there are multiple factors involved in what brings us to this place and in the decision making Each of them is an important consideration in the reasoning behind Beacons of Light. All of our data collection and study of the facts has shown us that we must reduce our footprint so as to better minister to God’s people and to focus the resources available for life in our communities. A life that will “feed’ the needs of the present-day faithful and attract to our way of life as Catholics those who are seeking the deepest relationship possible with Jesus Christ.

Archbishop Schnurr expressed it well some months ago when he said, “Our archdiocese was built for horse and buggy times when the multitude and closeness of the parishes was necessary for ministering to our people.” With the advent of the automobile, this is no longer a necessity, and we must look closely at the changes that are upon us.

Over the last ten months or so we have been engaged with consultants in several rounds of planning with our priests and laity alike. We have been talking with one another quite a bit in order to gather the necessary input/feedback so as to formulate a plan … it has been quite the journey and it will be yours to join in shortly for input and support as we move forward in forming our vision. 

There is certainly much more I would like to share, and I am going to suggest a way that can happen in a moment. In closing, I would like to ask you to do several things. Firstly, pray for the success of this endeavor, pray for our priests and parishioners who must face the reality of our time in history, pray for open minds and hearts, pray for people to be charitable to one another … to be Christians and not allow their emotions to win the day, PRAY for the Church of Cincinnati! 

Secondly, During the first several weeks of October, you will have access to the suggested Family of Parishes groupings that have been developed over the last several months.  These groupings are based on the data gathering previously mentioned and are sized according to ministerial workload. A few parishes will continue to stand alone but others will be grouped in two’s and more with each grouping or Family being roughly equal to each of the others in workload for the clergy called upon to minister to the faithful who reside in the Family. You are invited to constructively comment during this period.

Additionally, and here is how you can find out more, I invite you to reference the Beacons of Light Website for any information you may be looking for at www.BeaconsAOC.org. If you can’t find it there you can’t find it anywhere, as they say, and importantly, the first time you visit the website sign up for the newsletter as it will keep you informed of the plan and to our progress … with all the news that’s fit to print!

By now many of you have had a chance to review the makeup of at least the Family of Parishes of which your home parish will soon become a part. After this period of public review of the models that will last a few more weeks, there may be some tweaking that needs to take place based on the balanced and well-intentioned feedback we will have received. Once the work is completed on the makeup of the Families and all of the important background data is compiled for each Family and the final maps prepared showing the territorial boundaries of each as well as the boundaries of the six newly defined deaneries the archbishop will approve and promulgate the plan … hopefully no later than Thanksgiving.  It is then that the hard work begins.

With the decision to promulgate we will have spent one year in this strategic planning period to set the stage for what is to come. Once the Families have been decided upon the real work of pastoral planning will begin in each of the Families. 

Some have remarked that Beacons of Light is a “top-down” plan. Well, this period of data collection and modeling certainly fits that bill. There was no other method by which to bring us to this point with every decision being based on data, on facts. Now the hard work really begins.

That “hard work” is the “bottoms up” phase of the plan, the pastoral planning that will take place within each family that will determine everything that must be considered for parish communities and their people to eventually come together as one great parish that possesses the resources necessary to assure a rich and fervent mission-driven community who are ready to go out and “baptize all nations.”

New beginnings are something we celebrate every year as Advent comes upon us … it is prophetic that a new life is upon us as an archdiocese and that new life will begin to move forward come Advent of 2021 in just a few weeks.

It is time to pray and to pray fervently that all will go well with our plan, that all people will see the necessity of what we must do and that all may grow together more closely so as to work and to minister with an eye on a fruitful and worthwhile outcome that builds our parishes into powerhouses of God’s love and generosity.

May God bless and keep us as we move into a new and exciting time in our lives as Catholics, in our lives as the Church of Cincinnati, in our lives as the People of God.

In His Mercy,

Fr. Jan

P.S. I’m excited and I hope you are as well!

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