Pastoral Plan focuses on encountering Christ

By Kira Ciupek
Correspondent

Following a year of prayer, reflection and discussion, the Steering Committee for the diocesan Pastoral Plan, the Pastoral Plan Core Team, and the Essential Conversations consultant team have developed a document that contains the threefold vision of “Encounter, Ministry and Witness.” The plan, which is designed to nurture the faith of parishioners while reaching out to inactive and non-Catholics, will begin its implementation phase in October.  
The plan was initiated by Bishop Joe Vásquez in 2013 to address the changing demographics in the Austin Diocese. 
“More people are moving into our diocese every day,” Bishop Vásquez said. “The church welcomes everyone. In fact, the Holy Father is pushing the church to go out to the edges, to the peripheries, and to seek out those who are poor or suffering … We have to also be a church that evangelizes and goes forth to spread the Good News.”
Father Jim Olnhausen, who has been pastor of St. Margaret Parish in Giddings since 2003, has seen slow but steady growth in the parish, which sits in the southeastern section of the Austin Diocese.
“The number of families is far more Hispanic (Mexican/Mexican-American) now as compared to 10 years ago,” he said. 
The parish is also experiencing growth in the number of older couples from Houston and Austin who are buying tracts of land and retiring in the Giddings area, he said.
With the implementation of the Pastoral Plan, the Austin Diocese is also answering the call of Pope Francis “to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.”   
Charlene O’Connell, a member of the Pastoral Plan Core Team and retired associate director for the diocesan Religious Education and Formation Office, said one goal of the implementation phase is to identify parishes that are effectively inviting people to have transformative encounters with Christ. The hope is that by sharing their stories, parishes can serve as role models for one-another, as well as form collaborative relationships that foster creative, new approaches to ministry and outreach in the Austin Diocese.
“We do a wonderful job in a lot of ways. This plan gives us the best opportunity to tell our story of just how well we are doing,” O’Connell said. 
Father Olnhausen said St. Margaret Parish has both English and Spanish Bible studies and RCIA that foster living in Christ and developing a personal and communal relationship with Jesus. 
“We put great emphasis on good Liturgy and preaching to help foster growth in Christ,” he said.
St. Paul Chong Hasang Parish in Harker Heights offers a unique approach to adult catechesis. Al Ponce, who is in formation to be a deacon, said the parish offers a new and increasingly popular adult catechesis program during Advent and Lent, which features Father Robert Barron’s videos followed by small group discussions. 
“Typically 140 people attend — that’s an extreme success,” Ponce said. He added that the program’s achievements can also be attributed to a selective approach in choosing small group facilitators. “We looked for people who showed a hunger and desire to do more,” Ponce said. “Boy, did that work!” 
He said the powerful impact of the St. Paul Chong Hasang catechesis program can also be linked to effective communication between the leadership and the parishioners. 
“We offered the program on Sundays at 3 p.m. for the sake of those who couldn’t attend on Wednesdays,” Ponce said. “We’ve learned to send out a short questionnaire following each series so we know what people think about how we ran it. It’s important to know who you’re reaching so you can know how to serve them better.”
O’Connell said the implementation phase for the Pastoral Plan includes sharing resources, knowledge and experiences within local deaneries and between parishes throughout the Austin Diocese.
“The plan has great respect for the uniqueness of each parish,” O’Connell said. “The implementation process provides vision, direction and resources; but how it is implemented in a parish could be unique. We don’t want 127 parishes that look exactly alike. We want parishes united together to implement the plan, but not necessarily doing it the same way.”
Andy Dehart, business manager for St. Thomas More Parish in Austin, is purposefully looking for opportunities to collaborate. When he discovered cost reduction ideas for using the PDS Database system, he immediately offered his findings to other parishes. 
“I’ve shared how we use the new database system to solve problems,” Dehart said. “When I found a cost reduction idea for using the system, I passed it along to other parishes. I always keep in the back of my mind ‘If we’ve benefitted from this, how can other parishes benefit from this?’ It helps us grow the community more quickly and grow stronger when we collaborate,” Dehart added.
Another key element of the Pastoral Plan is a creative vision for telling the story of faith in ways that incorporate new forms of media and technology. Ponce credits St. Paul Chong Hasang’s pastor, Father Richard O’Rourke, for enthusiastically embracing modern media and new ideas. 
“We work very closely with him,” Ponce said. “He’s been a priest for over 50 years, and yet he’s so open to new, innovative ways to reach people, including the use of new technology and media.”
O’Connell suggests that the plan is first implemented at the individual level. Parishioners are encouraged to ask themselves the question, “How am I encountering Christ in my own life, and how am I sharing that with others?”
“They’ve got to see that the diocese welcomes them to active life in the church,” O’Connell said. “It’s not necessarily that the plan is individualistic. But it starts with a person asking, ‘Can I see my face in this plan?’ Once we see ourselves in the plan, then we find ways to actively become part of a faith community.” 
The Pastoral Plan will formally be presented to diocesan priests at the October Priest Convocation. The plan will then be shared with all parishes on Oct. 12 at St. Mary Cathedral in Austin. 
Those interested in submitting ideas or making comments during the implementation phase of the Pastoral Plan may e-mail pastoralplan-info@austindiocese.org or call (512) 949-2400.