Simple but effective approaches to the Pastoral Plan

By Kira Ciupek
Correspondent

At the heart of the Pastoral Plan, which was launched in 2015, is the message that every Catholic can have “an encounter with Christ that leads to transformation.” In the Austin Diocese, which serves more than half a million Catholics and stretches across 25 counties in Central Texas, it’s no easy task for parish priests to implement the objectives and goals of the Plan, which seeks to energize the faithful while reaching out to those on the periphery of society. 
Charlene O’Connell, a member of the Pastoral Plan Core Team, explained, “Our world is very complex and it is tempting to be focused on tasks and doing something instead of taking time to reflect and even pray. This plan invites people to an encounter with Jesus Christ to recapture our commitment to Christ that we made when we were baptized.” 
As Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Guadium, to encounter Christ is to be set “free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness, to be filled with the blessings of joyfulness in Jesus Christ.”
In the second goal of the Pastoral Plan the need for collaboration among parish leaders and ministries is emphasized to continue the mission of Jesus Christ. In the spirit of such collaboration, in 2015, St. Anthony Marie de Claret Parish in Kyle began developing a “broad vision of the parish” in order to “implement the pastoral plan with the collaboration of the various ministries and organizations of the parish,” said Father Miguel Duarte, the pastor. 
In an effort to foster better communication between ministries in the parish and the parish office, the St. Anthony Marie de Claret Pastoral Council met to clarify the function and mission for the parish, using the Pastoral Plan as a guide. 
“We called together the different ministries of the parish, dividing them up into categories — Spirituality, Formation, Education, Services and Liturgy. With these large category groups, we began to understand and work with them to accomplish some specific goals and objectives,” Father Duarte said. 
O’Connell sees this approach as one of the most effective uses of the Pastoral Plan. 
“We see the plan as a tool to dialogue about the work of various parish ministries and how they help people to grow in their Catholic faith,” she said.
Other parishes are utilizing ways that parishioners already gather to learn more about the plan. Father Michael O’Connor, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Round Rock, selected a team to discuss ways to implement the plan, to reach parishioners with the message of “encounter that leads to transformation.” 
Creating a welcoming environment between Sunday Masses was the key. Each Sunday from Easter to Pentecost, parishioners and visitors shared coffee and donuts between the two morning Masses, and focused on the reflection questions from the Pastoral Plan’s Study Guide. In addition, Father O’Connor sent an e-mail message to parishioners inviting them to respond to one of the reflection questions. 
“This is an excellent example of how a parish might reach out to its parishioners making effective use of technology to engage them in the Pastoral Plan,” O’Connell said. 
While some larger parishes have chosen to launch evangelization outreach efforts or review their religious education curriculum, smaller parishes don’t always have the resources to make major changes as they seek to incorporate elements of the Pastoral Plan, she said. 
“The simplest and very effective way to implement the plan in a small parish is to focus on the three goals and what a faith community is already doing,” O’Connell said. 
The three primary goals of the Pastoral Plan are providing spiritual formation that leads to encounter; developing a sustainable ministry-oriented culture of transformation; and strengthening Christian witness and outreach as a way of transforming individuals and communities. O’Connell suggested that these goals can be reached through a process of asking thoughtful and prayerful questions.
“How are the ministries, gatherings, Masses and celebrations of the sacraments already encounters with Jesus Christ? In what ways do parish ministry leaders and groups collaborate with each other, with entities within the community?” O’Connell asked. “One of the strongest collaborative efforts in all of the small, ‘one-church’ communities are the area metropolitan ministries groups. Those organizations are wonderful examples of not only collaborative work but also ecumenical work as they try to help those in need in their respective towns.”
Though larger parishes might have more resources for implementing the goals and objectives of the Pastoral Plan, smaller parishes often have people who are also very committed and willing to do the work, O’Connell said.
During its five-year implementation, the goal of the Austin Diocese through the Pastoral Plan is to inspire parishes, schools, ministries and individuals to encounter Christ — whether it’s through the simple act of sharing coffee and donuts with one-another after Mass or though collaborating among ministries.
Bishop Daniel Garcia will host a Pastoral Plan Gathering in Spanish Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. at Sacred Heart Parish in Waco. Everyone is invited to pray and find out more about the Pastoral Plan during the gathering. A similar gathering will be held in English Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. at St. Louis Parish in Austin. For more information on the diocesan Pastoral Plan, visit www.austindioceseplan.org.