Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
May the blessings of our Lord Jesus Christ fill up your hearts and lives! As the days begin noticeably to shorten, I pray that the Lord will continue to send us good weather and a safe and abundant harvest. The agricultural work that so many of us do, directly or indirectly, not only sustains our local economy but feeds a great many people throughout the world. The Lord’s goodness to us is multiplied many times over, when we do his will with cheerful hearts.
It is not always easy to discern and obey God’s will. God sometimes asks us to do difficult things, which we would rather avoid, and temptations often offer choices that falsely seem easier, sweeter, or more fruitful. However, if we cling faithfully to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, we will at least recognize when we are going astray. If we are practice daily dying to self, we will also have the courage to choose what God wills for us, even when it’s hard.
Last week, our pastoral planning executive committee was able to finish the task of evaluating all of the individual and parish-level feedback on the pastoral plan. I want to thank, again, all those who took the time to pray and think about the proposed pastoral plan, and to give feedback. Much of what we received was well-presented and did give me and the committee a better grasp of particular concerns and opportunities in certain places throughout the diocese.
We adopted as much of this feedback into the revised plan as we could, and this has greatly improved it. We will be sharing the results of this in the coming weeks and months. I am very hopeful that, in the coming implementation to begin next summer, the intended benefits will soon be recognized.
Collectively, over the past two generations, we have put a tremendous amount of energy into preserving our rural parishes and traditions. I am awed by the commitment that has been displayed and by how much has been successfully preserved. We built those parishes to serve the Catholics among the small family farmers that predominated in Iowa in the past.
The combination of small farms and big families, typical of the early decades of this diocese, meant that even our smallest parishes still had hundreds of people living within a few miles of the church. Schools and vocations both flourished, and a culture generally positive to religion protected family life from some of the more serious dangers.
Over the generations, however, both the economy and the society have changed around us. Today, and for the foreseeable future, we have big farms and small families, and a culture that is increasingly hostile to religion.
Our population has both shrunk and aged and continues to do so. The smaller number of children has forced several of our schools to close and has offered fewer vocations to priestly or religious life. The depth and quality of parish life, in most of the diocese, has declined accordingly. Cultural change has eroded every aspect of family life as well, and people are, in general, much less interested in church activities than in the past.
This is why, I believe, this pastoral planning effort is so important. In our early years we were very mission-oriented. Perhaps we have rested too long on our early success?
In recent decades, it has been much more difficult. We have shown that we are not afraid of the hard work involved and have succeeded far more than most places in keeping our schools and rural parishes open. But, in the effort to maintain, what have we sacrificed? What opportunities have we missed?
I beg of the Holy Spirit that this moment of pastoral planning will be the occasion of becoming together a “mission”-oriented diocese. The mission of the church is to save souls. The tools are the same as they have ever been – faith, hope, and love. We evangelize most effectively through generous personal witness, proclaiming the saving love of God in daily, faithful living out of our vocations, and joyfully sharing the face-to-face encounter with Jesus Christ in the word and in the sacraments.
In this sense, it does not matter if we have a hundred parishes in the diocese, or only one. Parishes exist only to serve the mission of saving souls.
For 30 years, the church has been calling us to the new evangelization. In this diocese, we have now begun to hear this call more effectively! Our good-hearted and heroic efforts to maintain what our parents and grandparents have bequeathed us have not left enough energy or imagination to receive the richer treasure of evangelizing.
Sometimes we go to Mass or do any of the ministry of the church, not joyfully and eagerly, but because we are afraid of losing what we have managed to preserve. This is both the strength and the weakness of the maintenance mentality. It keeps disciples, but it rarely makes new ones.
The success of our current pastoral planning will not be structural. Reorienting our parishes to where people are now, rather than where they were two generations ago, is necessary but not sufficient. If, after these changes, we continue to work only to keep things from changing further, we will have failed.
But if, because of these changes, we realize that we do have the energy and the will and the courage, not only to keep the faith, but also to share it creatively – to become mission-oriented about our faith – then we will succeed and flourish.
The participation of so many of you in the process thus far, in your feedback and prayers, gives me hope that we can make this change in the years to come.
May God bless you in every way, and increase your faith and your missionary zeal! Please continue to pray for me and for our diocese, just as I pray faithfully for all of you.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City