A decision on whether to consolidate parishes in the Belleville Catholic Diocese probably will not be ready by the end of February as originally planned, a church spokesman said Friday.
A memorandum sent to all the parishes said Bishop Edward K. Braxton's expected announcement about the future of parishes may be delayed until March or April 1 at the latest.
Because of aging priests and changes in population, the Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring may lead to the closure of up to 20 parishes in the diocese, which covers the 28 southernmost counties in the state and includes 121 parishes.
The process began in August 2011 with town-hall style meetings and parishes and diocesan schools evaluating their viability. A committee began studying those results in May.
Vicar General and chairman of the committee, Monsignor John W. McEvilly, said in Friday's memorandum: "We must all think like members of one Diocesan family. We must be looking out not only for the good of our particular parish community but for the good of the whole Church community in Southern Illinois."
The memorandum, which did not mention any specific parishes by name, listed recommendations by the committee. Braxton accepted most of those recommendations, but some areas remain under discussion within the committee.
One area where Braxton approved the committee's recommendation dealt with current parish "clusters." The committee said that clusters should be restructured and that parishes should be put together in "partnerships" that can ultimately be served by one priest.
The committee also continues to examine possible recommendations for parish schools, which include possibly requiring parish schools to have an enrollment of at least 50 students in grades K-8 and preventing neighboring parishes from providing more than 40 percent of their incomes to schools, for the viability of the parish. Those recommendations continue to be discussed at the committee level and have not been formally recommended to Braxton.
Monsignor John T. Myler, spokesman for the diocese, highlighted some of the other information released in the memo:
* Individual parish and school communities will be informed of changes affecting them, prior to any public announcements.
* The restructuring will affect parishes and schools and also the structures at the diocese's chancery and pastoral center.
* The implementation of restructuring will be gradual. "In some cases, the new parish arrangements could begin within six months after they are announced. In other cases, the new parish arrangements may not be in place for two years or more," according to Myler.
* Braxton will spend time until the formal announcement speaking with the leadership of individual parishes in order to help them prepare for the future. Myler stated about Braxton, "His hope is that, to the extent that it is possible, the Christian faithful themselves will embrace the difficult decisions that may lead to merging or closing parishes."
Parish consolidation has been taking place for 25 years across the country and around the world, McEvilly stated.
In Belleville, "what we are doing is long overdue and rather modest when compared to other dioceses," he said, mentioning the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which recently announced it will consolidate 203 parishes into 100.
McEvilly asked parishioners to pray about these matters during the season of Lent, a solemn time of preparation for Easter, which begins next week on Ash Wednesday.
Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2460.