CHANGE IS IN THE AIR
NORTHWEST PA — “Change must become a way of life for our diocese,” the Most Rev. Lawrence Persico, bishop of Erie, has noted on numerous occasions. On the weekend of June 4-5, another example of this reality was manifest as nearly 30 pastors and parochial vicars told parishioners that they had accepted new appointments from the bishop, effective July 6. It is the most significant change since new assignments were announced in 2017 as parish restructuring was implemented in response to pastoral planning.
Bishop Persico spent nearly a year in consultation with Father Nicholas Rouch, vicar for clergy, and the Clergy Personnel Board, whose members are elected by their peers. Priests across the diocese also were invited to weigh in during the process.
“We knew well in advance that we would have five pastorates opening up as a result of retirements,” Bishop Persico said. “So I am grateful we had the time needed to properly discern these assignments.” The unexpected death of Father Jim Kennelley, pastor of St. Lawrence in Albion, created a sixth opening. Filling the positions created a domino effect, as each new appointment was considered.
In recent years, the Office of Clergy Personnel has invited all priests in the diocese to let them know how their assignments are going.
“We ask them whether, in their estimation, it would be good for them to stay in their assignment, whether it might be time for them to consider a new challenge, or even if they sense the time for change has come,” said Father Rouch. “They had plenty of time to reflect on their situation, and that really gave us a good starting point.”
Father Rouch said it was edifying to read through the comments from the priests of the diocese.
“Most of them indicated they would go where the bishop needed them to go,” he said. “They understand that Bishop Persico sees the big picture and that they need to be responsive to the needs of the diocese as he discerns it.”
Over time, Bishop Persico and members of the Clergy Personnel Board sifted through the needs of both parishes and the diocese, matching the gifts of particular clergy with different parishes. Eventually, clarity surfaced.
Bishop Persico then spent about six weeks meeting one-on-one with the priests involved.
“I am happy to say that each priest he met with agreed to his new assignment,” Father Rouch said. “So from my perspective, although it was a very large task, the bishop’s leadership, the thoughtful, prayerful process of discernment for all involved as well as the generosity of the priests brought us to this moment.”
As vicar for clergy, Father Rouch invites parishioners to be open to their new situations.
“The variety of gifts among our priests is remarkable,” he said. “Some are obvious, but others are more hidden and take time to come to the surface.” He asks people to pray for the men who are in transition, to express gratitude to God for the ministry the priest has to offer their parish, and to welcome with patience and charity.
“People should not expect them to be like other priests they’ve known. Each priest has to be himself,” he said. “They’ve been given administrative responsibility for the parish, but they want to serve the people entrusted to their care with the gifts that they have and the graces of Holy Orders.”
Whether they are in new assignments or not, priests will be leading parishioners through an important time for the diocese and for the Catholic Church in the coming years. Pope Francis has asked dioceses around the world to embrace and encourage greater synodality in the church, and the American bishops are launching a three-year Eucharistic revival focused on understanding this central sacrament.
“We know that within a decade, we will have about one-third fewer priests to cover our parishes. We are a living church,” Bishop Persico said, “and it will take ongoing strength, generosity and creativity as we move into the future.”
By the numbers:
The following figures include the three priests ordained for the Diocese of Erie on May 27 as well as the five who are entering retirement:
- 35 priests are transitioning into new duties.
- 7 priests are changing residences due to change of assignment.
- With this change, the Diocese of Erie will have 96 diocesan priests, three religious priests and three priests from other dioceses active in ministry. The number of priests in the diocese was not projected to be this low before January 2023.