Priests increasingly will need to share living quarters. Laypeople will continue to take a greater role in church operations.
The Omaha Archdiocese is talking with its rural parishes about changes that are needed to keep those churches vibrant, while coping with priest retirements and declines in rural populations.
Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor and spokesman for the archdiocese, said 24 of the diocese’s 132 active priests will be eligible to retire in the next five years. Retirement age for priests is 70. Not all who are eligible to retire will choose to do so, but the diocese is trying to get ahead of the anticipated losses, he said.
The diocese’s priests met collectively in Fremont earlier this month to discuss rural church governance.
Church closures aren’t intended, McNeil said. The diocese backed away from a plan announced in 2017 to fold nine rural Nebraska churches into other parishes, he said.
Instead, the Archdiocese asked those parishes to find ways to keep their doors open. Out of that process, the diocese saw some parishes share staff, drop Masses, empower laypeople to do more and otherwise streamline operations.
“We are avoiding a defensive and reactive posture by saying, ‘How are we going to protect what we have? How are we going to keep our parish open and maintain what we have?’ ” McNeil wrote in an email about the changes.
“It’s never really about cost-savings,” he said. “It’s about use of resources.”
The Archdiocese covers 23 counties in northeast Nebraska, serving more than 230,000 Catholics.
The Rev. Bill L’Heureux, who ministers to four rural churches in the Omaha Archdiocese, said what’s happening in the rural churches is mirroring what is occurring elsewhere in rural communities. Towns have watched as their grocery store closes, the drugstore shutters and the schools merge.
“I have told (my parishes) that whatever happens, I will do my best to take care of you,” he said. “It’s a changing environment out here in rural areas, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll put a few more miles on.”
In rural areas, priests already typically minister to between two and four churches in different communities, McNeil said.
On an average Sunday, about 400 people attend services at the four churches where L’Heureux ministers: St. Lawrence in Silver Creek, St. Peter and Paul in Krakow, St. Rose of Lima in Genoa and St. Edward in St. Edward.
McNeil said it’s possible that priests who have been living separately in different communities might need to live collectively and pool their talents and time as they serve multiple churches. And the laypeople of the church are increasingly pitching in, whether it’s making decisions about music, providing religious education, opening the church doors, or helping with the books.
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“We’re taking a look at the whole landscape and saying, ‘What can we do differently?’ ” McNeil said.
Additionally, the church is examining how it might tap the lay community for help in developing leadership teams, McNeil said. “Some will be parish staff members, but many will not, he said.
“There’s more talk about how to continue to empower laypeople,” McNeil said.