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Roman Catholic parish hopes new model energizes its worshippers

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St. Emile's Rev. Carl Tarnopolski:


St. Emile's Rev. Carl Tarnopolski: "If they want their parish life to be rich and interesting they have to step forward." Photo Store

With volunteers already answering the office phones, repairing the building, keeping the books and cleaning the washrooms, Rev. Carl Tarnopolski wonders how much more he can ask of people in his parish.

"My parish had people on staff, but we ran out of money," says the priest, the employee of St. Emile Roman Catholic Church in St. Vital.

Tarnopolski says a new proposal from the Archdiocese of Saint Boniface on restructuring the operation of parishes could either overburden the congregation's already busy volunteers, or re-energize them.

The proposal to involve lay people in making decisions will be presented to priests, deacons and lay leaders at an all-day meeting on May 28, says Pierre-Alain Giffard, director of pastoral services for the archdiocese.

"We're looking at building healthy, relevant and missionary parishes that aim at spiritual growth and involving people in ministries," says Giffard, who holds a doctorate in theology specializing in church growth.

"We want this to be lived at the parish level. We often have parishes where people can act more like spiritual consumers."

The province's oldest archdiocese is home to about 118,000 Roman Catholics in about 90 parishes and chaplaincies in the eastern part of Manitoba. About one-third of the archdiocese's 55 priests come from outside of North America.

Giffard says the proposal calls for decision-making powers to move from the parish priest to include a parish leadership team responsible for faith formation, social justice, fellowship, finance, liturgical functions and proclaiming the faith.

This restructuring proposal grows out of a five-year action plan ( calling for spiritual and pastoral renewal involving all Catholics in the diocese, says Archbishop Albert LeGatt.

"It's also asking the parishes to engage in a visioning and planning process for their parish life, which is more than just keeping up the building," says LeGatt, who compares the shift in structure to building a bridge span by span.

"The next span in the bridge is about giving greater authority to the lay people and authority given in a consultative and service manner."

Changing the lines of authority in the Catholic church may take years to implement, says a retired professor of Catholic history and longtime advocate for change in the governance of the church.

"We've had a clericalized top-down leadership for centuries encoded in canon law," says Richard Lebrun, adding it is ironic the hierarchy of the archdiocese is now telling the lay people how to get involved.

But LeGatt says not every parish is obligated to take on the new model and can decide how to proceed. What does need to change is how Roman Catholics, whether lay people or ordained priests, see the work of the church.

"That's when the culture has to change from 'I'm the priest and I decide in the end,' to 'I'm the priest and I'm the servant of the communion in the parish.' That means consensus, that means compassion, that means listening, that means dialogue."

After 41 years as a priest, Tarnopolski knows change is inevitable. He also knows volunteers can be scarce, but people who do step up benefit from being engaged in church life.

"A lot more people know what's going on, they have a sense of ownership, where before they didn't know what was happening because the paid staff was doing it," he says of his parish of 300 families.

"If they want their parish life to be rich and interesting, they have to step forward and do it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2014 D15

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