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With a new year starting for the Catholic Church, does movement on the Road to Renewal come with it?

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St. Joseph's Cathedral in downtown Buffalo

Next Sunday is, in the Christian calendar, the first Sunday of Advent. It marks the start of a new year for the Roman Catholic Church. And in Buffalo, that new year could bring some movement in a developing plan to help parishes work with fewer resources, with the goal of keeping them open.

What’s known as the Road to Renewal was announced last year by Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, while he was leading the Diocese of Buffalo as a temporary apostolic administrator. He formed a Diocesan Renewal Task Force, made up of clergy and laity, to study and make recommendations for how the Catholic Church in Western New York could continue its spiritual mission while facing limited and dwindling resources.

“We have parishes that are struggling, we have parishes that are that are doing well. And I think we need to come together to see how can we support one another in our various ministries and apostolates,” said Bishop Michael Fisher, the head of the Diocese of Buffalo since January 2021, in a recent interview with WBFO.

In recent years, the numbers of Catholic priests and those attending Catholic churches in Western New York have been in a steady decline, even before challenges such as the COVID pandemic and the diocesan clergy sex abuse scandal, the latter of which led to the diocese filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

In the past, the diocese has addressed lowering attendance and resources by merging parishes, resulting in the full closures of many churches.

The goal of the Road to Renewal is to prevent more from shutting down. The strategy recommended by the task force is the implementation of “parish families,” a model under which groups of anywhere from three to six parishes would form a cohort and work together to share resources for the benefit of all churches involved.

“You might have a parish within this family that has a very robust youth program, or maybe their formation program, where another parish, maybe they don't have the kind of resources to afford, you know, a director of religious education. It's a way to bring those types of things together,” Bishop Fisher said.

The original timeline called for unveiling parish families in the summer of 2021 and the rollout of some pilot families by September. The bishop says there was a desire instead for more consultation and feedback. He now expects up to a half dozen pilot parish families could be introduced by mid-December at the earliest.

Sharing priests among parishes is nothing new. In some cases, especially in rural areas of the diocese, one pastor is responsible for multiple parishes located miles apart. For example, one priest presides over three parishes in the towns of Belfast, Fillmore and Cuba, with only a retired priest assisting.

Under a draft of recommended parish families prepared last year, they’d remain united. Other parish families would cover as many as a half-dozen parishes within a set geographic span. Urban and suburban parish families might exist in close proximity, but some of the proposed groups in rural portions would continue to involve lengthy drives back and forth.

The Road to Renewal Program, when introduced, vowed not to close parishes. Bishop Fisher says they cannot promise that, but if tough decisions are to be made, that should come from the local level, not his office.

“Too many of our programs in the past have always been sort of imposed from the top down,” he said. “Here we need to work with the parish level and the family levels to see how we do that. I mean, you have one priest that's taking care of three and four parishes. Something has to give in the mass schedule. We can't have a 10 o'clock Mass at this parish and a 10 o'clock Mass at the other, and he's unable to handle that. So, there will definitely need to be adjustments and mass schedules and, and within those families.”