larger-than-life crucifix towers over Mark Sullivan as he approaches the lectern in Horicon’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church to deliver a reading during Mass.Gary Pokorny, far left, director of Catechesis and Youth Ministry for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, facilitates a small group breakout session with clergy and lay people from throughout Dodge County during a District 7 gathering, Saturday, Feb. 8, at Sacred Heart Parish, Horicon, to formulate topics for discussion during the upcoming Archdiocesan Synod. (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)

Looking at the assembled faithful, one thing is painfully obvious to Sullivan, a frequent lector at the rural parish in the hinterland of the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

Mass attendance is not what it was three or four years ago.

“It’s not hard to see there are less people going to church,” said Sullivan, also president of the Horicon St. Vincent de Paul Society conference. “There has to be some change. We need to come up with reasons why and what we can do to stem the tide of lower church attendance. We need to reach out to the 40- and 50-year-olds and their kids. They are the future of our church.”

Sullivan raised his concerns forward during a Feb. 8 gathering of several dozen members of Dodge County Catholic parishes held at Sacred Heart.

District meetings held around archdiocese

The gathering was one of 15 district meetings scheduled around the archdiocese in February and March intended to define and refine challenges, first brought forward at parish-level meetings last fall, facing the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

The meetings are in preparation for the June 7-8 Archdiocesan Synod in which delegates will participate at the Cousins Center in Milwaukee.

“Practical suggestions from these district meetings will be taken to the synod,” said Randy Nohl, director of the John Paul II Center and head of the synod preparatory committee. “We are asking people with a vested interest in the church what we need to do for the future of the archdiocese; what are the positives about the Catholic Church and what are things we need to strengthen?”

Nohl said the synod is being planned in a multi-phased approach initiated last year by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki in his pastoral letter,  “Who Do You Say that I Am?”

Pastoral letter outlined priorities

“It all ties in with the archbishop’s pastoral letter in which he set three main priorities: our Catholic identity or who are as Catholics; evangelization, which is what do we do as Catholics; and stewardship or how do we do it?” Nohl said.

The people of a parish, not just the priest, need to effect changes in the church, said Karen Gadden, choir director for 32 years at St. Theresa Parish, Theresa.

“You can’t just depend on the priest to fix problems with people not attending church or having faith in the archdiocese. Like Jesus told the disciples, ‘Go out among other nations…’ People need to think of our archdiocese as a little country and go out and help. I think that’s what we are doing with the synod,” said Gadden, who will serve as a delegate to the synod.

She said she felt an enthusiasm and excitement in people participating in small group discussions, particularly in her group pondering the future of the liturgy, during the meeting for District.

“Answering the question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ energizes people,” Gadden said. “I really care about our archdiocese and helping to build it back up. I consider us to be on a journey. It will be an interesting few months.”

Catholics need evangelization preparation

What was evident during the Horicon gathering is that Catholics are not adequately prepared to be involved in evangelization, said Randy Richard of Beaver Dam.

“We need to be better formed and taught to be a disciple,” said Richard, who serves on the pastoral council and evangelization, stewardship and technology committees at St. Katharine Drexel Parish.

Enthusiasm was evident at the Horicon synod preparation meeting, said Richard, involved in the planning process since Archbishop Listecki issued his pastoral letter.

“Who wouldn’t stand up and take notice when the archbishop proclaims he is looking for input from all parishes for program and priorities in the archdiocese for the next 15 years? That, to me, is a pretty compelling invitation,” Richard said. “I was thoroughly impressed with the enthusiasm from our small discussion group on evangelization. People were alive and on fire about their faith.”

Despite being from different communities and parishes, Richard said meeting participants displayed “spot on common thinking, even though we had never met each other.”

“It was fun and exciting,” he said.

Employing a diocesan point person to coach pastors in encouraging evangelization was one important suggestion offered during the Horicon meeting, Richard said.

Looking ahead to ‘positive future’

“We need one-on-one coaching to make sure priests and faith formation teams are using a common-themed program to advance evangelization,” Richard said. “We also have to talk about the elephant in the room – the sexual abuse scandals. I feel terrible for the victims, but Catholics need to get excited about our faith again.”

“Through the synod process, we are starting to talk about a positive future and not the ugly things we have talked about for so, so long,” Richard said. “But I am not starry eyed or naive enough to think the synod will be a fix-all and the archbishop can solve all the issues of the archdiocese. Let’s be realistic. Some issues have to be solved at the local parish community levels.”

Gary Pokorny, director of catechesis and youth ministry for the archdiocese, served as a small group facilitator at the Horicon meeting.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm and a general positive feeling at being able to say good things about the Catholic Church,” Pokorny said. “It was a good getting together of people from neighboring parishes.”

Sense of collaboration exists

Despite coming from parishes miles apart, he said meeting participants “had a sense of collaboration on issues facing the church and archdiocese. They really seem to care where the archdiocese is heading.” Pokorny said some participants voiced specific desires for increased visits by the archbishop “to help people feel part of the larger church.”

People ‘on fire with their faith’

Sr. Angela Ireland, a School Sister of St. Francis and a small group meeting facilitator, said people “want to get excited about their faith.”

“People were kind of on fire with their faith … excited about following Jesus, kind of like Pope Francis is doing,” said Sr. Angela, who served on the steering committee of the previous Archdiocesan Synod, held in 1987. “I enjoy seeing people come alive in their faith,” she said. “Parish leadership is very engaged and serious about wanting training for adult faith formation in the parishes.”

Fr. Michael Wild, pastor at Annunciation Parish, Fox Lake. and St. Joseph Parish, Waupun, served on a small group discussing the liturgy today and in the future. “What we were looking at is how we worship doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Fr. Wild said. “In our world today more people than ever are looking for answers, for visions of truth.”

He noted synods are held every 20-25 years “to look at where the archdiocese is at and where we want to go.”

“Given the realities of the number of people who don’t attend Mass as they did in the past, it’s a great time for us to review and take a look at what we can do to make the celebration of our faith a more vibrant and dynamic experience that will witness the people to join us and live the life of Jesus,” Fr. Wild said.