Assembled in January, the goal of the task force is to gather information from inner-city parishes through surveys and focus groups. A report containing the group's findings and recommendations on how to improve urban ministry will be submitted to Archbishop John J. Myers in September.
"Our mandate was to look at the realities and make recommendations for more effective ministry (in urban areas.) To hear the city, we have to start with the city," Sister Linda Klaiss, S.S.J., chairperson of the task force and pastoral associate of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Newark, explained.
The Urban Ministry is the first of four task forces formed by Archdio-cese of Newark's New Energies Parish Transition Project. The three other task forces-Multicultural Ministry, Waterfront Ministry and Youth and Young Adult Ministry-are in varying stages of development. The other groups will likely use the results found by the Urban Ministry Task Force. Information will be shared and cross fertilized, creating a rich, detailed matrix of life within the archdiocese.
Father Robert A. Antczak, pastor of Saint Paul the Apostle Parish, Jersey City, is a member of the Urban Ministry Task Force. He believes one of the main objectives is to listen to the city parishes. "The task force wants to improve communication between city parishes and the archdiocese," Fr. Antczak said. "The issues in urban ministry are complex and the needs keep changing. The map and configurations of these parishes have also changed due to (parishes and schools) merging and we need to update the information."
Mark Howard, director of research and planning for the Archdio-cese of Newark, helped the committee disseminate surveys, assemble focus groups and analyze demographics. "Some people who are not from urban areas come to city churches because they see something different there. Urban ministry should be viewed as a gift, not a challenge," Howard said.
Surveys were sent to urban parishes in March and focus group sessions were held in Union, Hudson and Essex counties to assess parish needs. "We asked lay leaders and representatives what their strengths, hopes, dreams and challenges were," Sr. Linda explained. "How can we, on a local level, become more collaborative and bring all of our information together."
The results obtained so far by the task force show that lay leaders in urban areas are willing to participate more in the Church, but many do not have the training or cannot make time due to their jobs.
"There is a lot of energy around looking at clerical and lay leadership," Sr. Linda observed. "People want to be part of the process and be the voice of the Church and are willing and ready to learn. People desire full, active ministry but they have time constraints that limit their opportunity for involvement. Many parishes cannot afford professional staff and (programs) are mainly run by volunteers. How can we provide quality ministry with good faith experience for these people who simply do not have the time?"
Another concern of urban parishes is the lack of financial resources, especially for maintaining facilities. "In the cities there are big, old, beautiful churches that take lots of money to repair," she said. "Pastors spend so much time maintaining the buildings but their hearts want to minister. However, if we close these churches, people feel abandoned. We do not want to see these churches leave the community."
Sr. Linda believes that there is the "pull of invitation" needed to draw people from different cultures into the Church. For example, at Saint Mary Parish there is a large West African community with parishioners from Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon. "Immigrants have always looked to the Church to give them security and to connect with people," she said.
Working in Jersey City for over 10 years, Fr. Antczak said finances, housing and education are major concerns for urban parishes. "School closings affect urban churches because some parents and children sever connections with the Church if they do not go to Catholic school," he said. "Neighborhood concepts are being pushed into a corner as highrise condominiums replace old two and three-family homes. This means higher prices and higher taxes. Is the city a melting pot or a mosaic with different cultures just living next to each other and not intermingling?"
Fr. Antczak believes training seminarians to minister in an urban environment will improve spiritual outreach in inner-city areas. "In the past, a priest's first assignment after being ordained was in a city parish," he said. "That does not happen as often today. Saint Paul went to the big cities to preach and so should we. Priests need to be living the priesthood more before being ordained."