Regional vicariate structure: Capturing the Spirit among us

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Robert P. Lockwood

Regional vicariates.

That’s a phrase that’s been bouncing around the Diocese of Pittsburgh lately that you might have heard. In the April 3 issue of the Pittsburgh Catholic, Bishop David Zubik devoted his column to the topic of regional vicariates. There have been meetings, studies, conversations, articles and talks about regional vicariates. You can visit the diocesan Web site (www.diopitt.org) and find a ton of digital copy and even a video on the topic.

Quick definitions: “Regional vicariates” is a means of pastoral governance — which means safeguarding and promoting the church’s unity in faith and worship — where a diocese is divided into a limited number of territorial sections made of parishes and Catholic institutions under a vicar. Vicars are priests appointed by the bishop to lead the vicariates. Vicars serve as the representative of the bishop in the vicariates and have the authority to coordinate pastoral care, resolve problems and make communication between the bishop, his priests, deacons and parishes easier.

All of which probably leaves you with a couple of simple questions: what exactly are regional vicariates, how will they operate and, after all of the hubbub, what difference will they make in my life and the life of my parish?

But before we get to those three questions, let’s begin at the beginning.

In the Diocese of Pittsburgh — and in every diocese throughout the country — Catholics will always identify themselves by their parish. If you meet somebody and find out he or she is Catholic, the next question is always: “What’s your parish?” They will tell you St. Alexis in Wexford, St. James in Wilkinsburg, Holy Wisdom on Pittsburgh’s North Side or one of the other 212 parishes in the diocese.

It is also likely you will ask them the natural follow-up: “Is that where you were raised?” That’s when they might get a far-away look in their eyes and tell you about the old parish in the old neighborhood where they spent their childhood.

Which is good and right. Catholics identify themselves so closely with their parishes because they should. In the classic Catholic definition, a parish is a community of the faithful established by the bishop of the diocese and placed under a pastor. It is most commonly made up of Catholics within the territorial boundaries of the parish.

A more flesh-and-blood definition is that a parish is where Catholics celebrate the Eucharist together, hear the word of God, are nurtured in their faith from baptism to burial, and carry out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. It is where Catholics, under the leadership and guidance of their pastor, worship God, are educated in their faith, receive the sacraments and serve those in need. Which makes it pretty easy to see why Catholics have such a strong identity with their parishes.

Of course, at the same time, Catholics understand that they are not just a collection of loosely connected parishes, like a housing development with a bunch of individual homes connected by an association board that makes sure no one lets their grass grow too long.

As Bishop Zubik wrote in the April 3 Pittsburgh Catholic, “The Catholic Church is not a collection of independent congregations. Never has been, never will be. ... We Catholics are, as we acknowledge every time we say the creed, members of the body of Christ that is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”

As Catholics, we live out our faith in our diocese under the pastoral care — and authority — of our diocesan bishop, who has the responsibility from his ordination as a bishop and appointment by the Holy Father to teach, sanctify and govern the faithful of his diocese. He is the shepherd of the Catholic community.

And, as every Catholic knows, we are all part of the church universal. We are intimately connected not only with Catholics in our parish and our diocese. We are intimately connected under the Holy Father with the Catholic community everywhere in the world.

Which might seem to have taken us a bit away from our basic questions about vicariates. But not really. Vicariates will be central to how our parishes will be organized in our diocese and how that intimate apostolic connection among the whole Catholic community — all our parishes and our bishop — will be lived out as the body of Christ.

At Bishop Zubik’s installation Mass on Sept. 28, 2007, he asked the Catholic community of the diocese to make certain that we were excited about our faith. As he would write in his first pastoral letter, “The Church Alive!” (June 2008): “As the body of Christ, we, all the baptized of the church, have an important role. Let no one ever question their importance. Let no one ever feel disregarded in the church. Let all the members of the church as the body of Christ embrace what it means to embody Christ.”

To carry out this critical understanding of who we are as the body of Christ, Bishop Zubik asked the diocese to begin to explore a new system of organization of the parishes — from a system of deaneries that is used now, to what are called “regional vicariates.”

The purpose of undertaking this change, as Bishop Zubik wrote in his column, “is a call to all of us to capture the enthusiasm of the Spirit moving among us, to combine our energies for the sake of Jesus and his Gospel. The guidance and administration of regional vicars around a common vision of the Gospel will help to grow the church and to know that it is ‘The Church Alive!’”

Next week: “From the old to the new” — how parishes are organized under the bishop now and how that will change under regional vicariates.