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National Pastoral Life Center: Making Parishes Better
By Peter Feuerherd
Serving as a bridge over troubled waters, this organization works to narrow the divisions among Catholics.

Q U I C K S C A N

Bringing Catholics Together
Turbulent Times
Progress at the Parish Level
Crisis Control
The Quiet Revolution

 

Photo by Phillip Jacobs

Bring together a group of scholars and writers who have written for years about sex and Church teaching—often on different sides of contentious issues—and expect fireworks and polarized disagreements. It sounds like the recipe for another talk-show slugfest.

But this gathering is different. For one thing, it’s private and no grandstanding is allowed. There is no gallery of partisans to appeal to. Instead, the group is asked to discuss points of agreement over the question: “What do you perceive as valuable in our sexual teaching that we can pass on to the next generation?”

They find much common ground. It’s all in a day’s work for the National Pastoral Life Center (NPLC), the sponsor of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. It’s just a slice of the group’s varied work on behalf of the Church in the United States.

And that is only the beginning of the discussion, says Father Eugene Lauer, director of NPLC. “The goal is to energize others to do this at their institutions and in their localities,” says the priest, who took over at NPLC a year ago.

Bringing Catholics Together

Such a discussion may be coming to your town. In this way, NPLC serves as a catalyst, finding ways to bring Catholics together—sometimes over contentious issues—all in a quest to make parish ministry more successful. NPLC has been described as a pastoral think tank, ready to assist churches and dioceses in addressing their most difficult issues.

Is your parish looking to extend its outreach to a growing local Hispanic population? Is there conflict between your pastor and lay pastoral ministers? Are parishioners confused and angered by the sex-abuse scandals?

Then you might want to look above a Catholic shelter for homeless people off the Bowery in lower Manhattan—the headquarters for the NPLC. Downstairs, the people of New York’s harsh streets are able to get showers, clothes, a mailing address and other services, thanks to a ministry sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York. Upstairs is a “chuck wagon for the troops” of America’s Catholic parishes, notes Karen Sue Smith, editor of NPLC’s Church magazine.

Those troops, battered by the sex-abuse crisis and continued polarization in the Church, can find support. From those offices radiate services, including the magazine, conferences for parish ministers, research, consultation, small community development, the Catholic Common Ground Initiative and support for Catholic social ministry leaders.

The center, begun in 1983, is the brainchild of its founder and guiding force, the late Msgr. Phil Murnion, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Msgr. Murnion, who died of cancer in 2003, lived in a room above the shelter. He often laced his talks around the country with stories about the people there.

He intended NPLC to be a vehicle to guide and inspire parish and social ministry workers around the country. He saw U.S. parishes as a way to change the world. A sociologist with a graduate degree from Columbia University, Msgr. Murnion had a unique pastoral vision that was forged on the streets of New York.

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Turbulent Times

It was an idealistic vision, for sure. Yet through its conferences and publications, the venture has succeeded. That is in no small part due to the efforts of Msgr. Murnion, known throughout Church and media circles for his wit, concern for social justice and his knowledge of what was happening in parishes from California to Georgia. Now, like the Church it serves, NPLC is at a crossroads, says Sacred Heart of Mary Sister Catherine Patten, former interim director and current staffer.

NPLC has new leadership with the appointment of Father Lauer, formerly codirector of the Hesburgh Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Father Lauer’s appointment as the new director of NPLC comes in the midst of a turbulent time in Church life, due to fallout from the sex-abuse scandal, growing lay ministry and continued polarization among Catholics.

Father Lauer, 68, says, “I want to learn what the best successes are,” while bringing his own perspectives on the pastoral challenges facing the Church. He has worked as a parish priest and hospital chaplain, and in academia. As director of the Hesburgh Center, a sabbatical study center for priests, religious and lay professionals in ministry, he developed contacts with thousands of parish staff people.

He is stepping into a tradition in which Msgr. Murnion and the NPLC explored scores of issues concerning the future of the Church. In a published statement on polarization within the Church just before he died, Msgr. Murnion urged: “Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.” Murnion’s development of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, supported by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and other bishops, was meant to address that challenge and is now a central component of NPLC’s ministry.

“It is an attempt to recognize that we are all part of the same Church,” Sister Patten, who is now spearheading the project, says. In some quarters, including among some prominent bishops, the effort was met with suspicion that it was simply a stalking horse for liberal Catholic causes. But Sister Patten has overseen a number of conferences, such as the recent event on Church teaching on sexuality, and publications intended to bring together liberal and conservative Catholics.

The value of NPLC, however, extends beyond contentious Church issues. Its focus remains the nuts and bolts of parish life. Much of that carries the social vision that Msgr. Murnion championed.

Progress at the Parish Level

At St. Mary’s Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an NPLC staffer, Dominican Sister Donna Ciangio, has assisted in providing leadership training for the largely Hispanic immigrant parish.

That leadership is tackling the issue of affordable housing in the neighborhood, a concern in an area where the poor are being priced out of what is now considered valuable Manhattan real estate.

NPLC, says Father Neil Connolly, pastor of St. Mary’s, “provides for us a forum for interchange.” A recent meeting sponsored by parish leadership brought together 400 neighborhood residents to urge City Hall to use a public property in the neighborhood for low- and moderate-income housing.

A similar kind of social-action parish ministry has been promoted by NPLC in the Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The diocese, founded in 1982, is located in the southern part of the state, bordering on Mexico. Many of the Catholics there are poor and from immigrant backgrounds.

“They’ve helped us in just about everything,” Bishop Ricardo Ramirez says about NPLC, which consulted in establishing diocesan chancery procedures, provided financial counsel and aided parish social-justice ministry.

“What we have learned overall is the emphasis on the parish,” says Bishop Ramirez. “That’s where the Church happens. If it doesn’t happen on the parish level, it doesn’t happen.”

Parishes in the Diocese of Las Cruces have focused on the needs of immigrants, assisting them not just materially but also with advice on legalizing their status. The largely rural and poor area has been seen as a dumping ground for various environmental hazards, but parishes have fought landfills and successfully blocked the placement of a medical waste incinerator that posed a threat to one small town.

NPLC, of course, is not for poor parishes and dioceses alone. It reaches Catholics of all social classes. Conferences sponsored by NPLC bring together parish ministers—including laypeople, now more than ever—for education on developing leadership, the nature of parish, stewardship and other concerns.

One series of conferences is sponsored by the NPLC Roundtable. Jeffry Korgen, director of social ministries and director of the Roundtable, acknowledges with a chuckle that the name “has a superhero kind of feel to it.”

While its members may not be superheroes, they definitely work on massive projects for a greater good. The Roundtable provides an ongoing dialogue and support system for diocesan social-justice directors. Their efforts to promote Church social teaching over the past four years have focused on discussions to promote security in a post-9/11 world and still remain true to the Catholic teaching on peace.

Another important effort by the Roundtable has been a joint effort by Catholic social-justice leaders, along with mainstream Protestants and evangelicals, to provide debt relief for poor countries. Korgen points to recent legislation passed by Congress as a triumph for this unusual coalition.

Crisis Control

Father Dan Danielson, pastor of the Catholic Community of Pleasanton, California, part of the Oakland Diocese, has been a regular participant in NPLC seminars. He’s brought back scores of ideas from such meetings, in particular the development of a parish young-adult ministry.

He learned one important facet about such ministry. “The young adults have to run it. You facilitate it so they get to run it themselves,” says the pastor, now a frequently published author of articles on reaching young adults. Small Christian communities, in which groups of a dozen or fewer come to-gether regularly to share the Scriptures and discuss their faith, are also a part of the NPLC agenda and are now a part of parish life in Pleasanton as well.

Charmaine Williams, director of pastoral planning and human resources for the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, notes that studies initiated by NPLC on lay parish-ministry workers have been instrumental in helping her diocese develop compensation plans for this new breed of Church employee. NPLC conferences on the future of ministry have been instrumental in planning for the Diocese of Fort Worth.

“For dioceses like ours facing the priest shortage very acutely, it is an important dimension to meet with others facing the same concerns,” she says. The NPLC weeklong training for new pastors also assists priests in learning how to minister in a collaborative way, an educational opportunity encouraged for pastors in Fort Worth.

NPLC remains in the forefront of examining and working on some of the Church’s most severe pastoral problems, besides finding ways to cope with the looming priest shortage.

On the sex-abuse crisis, NPLC has developed publications providing tips on how to protect children in parishes. One is titled “Keeping Our Children Safe.” Other publications provide help for new pastors, parents wanting to share their faith with their children,  bereavement counselors, altar servers and lectors.

While the NPLC continues its work on social justice, its bread-and-butter work may well be the numerous conferences it sponsors to assist parish ministers. In recent years, those conferences have reflected the huge growth in lay ministry.

Cecelia Regan, director of religious education at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Old Bridge, New Jersey, attended a recent conference that was highlighted by an address from the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan.

“He was able to communicate an understanding of what we do,” she recalls. “We are on the front line of the parishes,” she says, noting that Bishop Untener and other NPLC speakers “understand that. We need to be patted on the back.”

The Quiet Revolution

While NPLC will continue to bring Catholics together to seek common ground on issues such as Church teaching on sexuality, it’s this quiet revolution of lay ministry that is its most pivotal challenge. Sister Donna works with parish leaders on this issue.

Father Lauer notes there are an estimated 6,800 Catholic seminarians in the United States today; at the same time, 34,000 laypeople are enrolled in master’s degree programs in theology. Those laypeople hungering for a role in ministry will need even more education in the future.

“The future of lay ministry is going to influence everything in the Church. It’s the one thing as a pastoral center we will need to be on top of,” says Father Lauer.

Despite these difficult issues, NPLC enters a new era with confidence, says Sister Patten. Much of its work is not complicated. “A lot of what we do is bring people together who know what they’re doing,” she says, citing as an example an annual conference of parish planners from dioceses who write their own agenda, with NPLC simply providing a space and organization. Such conferences bring together leaders in various dioceses who are struggling with issues related to closing and consolidating parishes.

Msgr. Murnion, she notes, was known as a man with an extensive Rolodex of contacts around the country. Now Father Lauer brings his own contacts.

As Father Lauer brings a new perspective, he follows in Msgr. Murnion’s footsteps by living above the ministry to homeless people. It remains a continual reminder of the vision of the NPLC founder that parish life is about effectively reaching the poor and disenfranchised, as well as nurturing those who come through the church doors every Sunday.   

Information about services offered by the National Pastoral Life Center is available by calling 212-431-7825 or going online at www.nplc.org.


Peter Feuerherd, editor of The American Catholic Newspaper, based in Connecticut, is also a freelance writer and editor who has traveled extensively throughout Spain, Jordan, Britain and Ireland. Currently, he is working on the book Are You Saved? (Crossroad). Peter is a husband and father of two grown children.


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