ForoPalabra Depopulation: integration of rural parishes underway

Omnes-December 10, 2019-Reading time: 9 minutes

Some bishops, like the incumbent of Osma-Soria, Bishop Abilio Martínez Varea, are developing new formulas for pastoral care, such as integrating dispersed rural parishes into a single, more missionary parish community. This is what he explained in the ForoPalabra organized by the magazine Palabra.

-Text Rafael Miner

In Spain there are 8,131 municipalities, according to official data, and 23,021 parishes, according to the official report of the Episcopal Conference. For years, some experts have launched the idea of merging municipalities, with little success. But the problems of a hollowed-out Spain, largely due to the low birth rate and the emigration of young people to the cities, are not limited to the civil and economic spheres. 

In pastoral care, the Church does not abandon the small rural communities, but as Juan Carlos Mateos, director of the secretariat of the Clergy Commission of the Episcopal Conference, explained in Palabra last month, priests today are fewer in number and older than in the past, and their parishes are often left with few faithful. The effort that some priests, usually younger, must make to attend to their parishioners is enormous and sometimes exceeds their strength, especially in autonomous communities such as the two Castillas, provinces of Galicia, Asturias, territories of Aragon, Extremadura, areas of Andalusia, etc. And this is not to mention what Mateos called "Unbelief and secularization, which are not a phenomenon alien to rural Spain either."

A pastoral response

In this context of "pastoral response" The ForoPalabra, dedicated to the phenomenon of depopulation, creativity and modernization, arose, in which the Bishop of Osma-Soria, Monsignor Abilio Martínez Varea, made the proposal of "to mature the possibility of considering as a single parish community the group of parishes entrusted to the pastoral care of a priest and to act accordingly in pastoral terms. Our present pastoral organization, with many small parishes scattered over a very large territory, requires a profound rethinking. A serene reflection is therefore necessary at all levels in the diocese".

The ForoPalabra took place in Madrid with the presence of the engineer Alejandro Macarrón, consultant and director of Renacimiento Demográfico, who introduced the topic and acted as moderator; the bishop of Cuenca, Mons. José María Yangüas; vicars from other affected dioceses, such as Coria-Cáceres; Castilian parish priests who attend up to 40 parishes; as well as the parish priest of Villahoz (Burgos), José Luis Pascual, where the First European Congress on Rural Repopulation was held in the summer, and priests and lay people, who were received by the director of Palabra, Alfonso Riobó, and the general director of Religious Institutions of Banco Sabadell, Santiago Portas, where the colloquium was held.

The reflection of the bishop of Osma-Soria tries to "to give effect to the papal proposal set forth in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudiumnumber 28"which is usually considered as a programmatic document. In it, Pope Francis points out that "The parish is not an outdated structure; precisely because it has great plasticity, it can take on very diverse forms that require the docility and missionary creativity of the Pastor and the community. [But we must recognize that the call for the revision and renewal of parishes has not yet borne sufficient fruit to bring them closer to the people, to make them places of living communion and participation, and to orient them completely to the mission".

A little earlier, Bishop Martínez Varea recognized, with words of the Pope, that it is necessary to go beyond the "it has always been done this way", and quoted these words of his from point 33 of the same exhortation: "Pastoral ministry in the key of mission aims to abandon the comfortable pastoral criterion of 'it has always been done this way'. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the objectives, structures, style and evangelizing methods of their own communities. A postulation of the ends without an adequate communitarian search for the means to achieve them is condemned to become mere fantasy"..

Changing times and capabilities

Aware of the challenge, the Bishop of Soria, speaker at the Forum, wanted to introduce his reflection on parishes: "We are living through a real change of epoch, before which we find ourselves bewildered: Christian life with the language that expresses it seems to have become incomprehensible and even strange to many, even to those who call themselves believers and have a certain ecclesial life. The Gospel, our 'grammar' for interpreting life, seems in fact not to influence the daily feelings and actions of the people of our time. The result is the constant abandonment of ecclesial life, beginning with the liturgy, of young people and adults; in our churches we see mainly old people...".

He then focused on parishes and their difficulties in being effective: "Until a few years ago, in fact, parishes were able to carry out the mission of making the Church visible as an effective sign of the proclamation of the Gospel for the life of mankind. Thanks to them, everyone could find in their own parish the necessary help to receive the faith and baptism, to mature in the Christian life and to bear witness to it in the world. However, for some years now, many parishes no longer have sufficient people and resources to carry out these actions effectively, and it must be recognized that they no longer have the capacity to carry out their mission".

Consequently, the reflection of Bishop Martinez Varea, which he has been making explicit in the Diocesan Pastoral Council of his diocese, with the title "The missionary face of the Church of Osma-Soria", points out: "Lhe experience of recent years makes a review advisable, taking into account both the depopulation suffered in almost all the areas of the Diocese and the real difficulties posed to the pastoral care of the faithful by the dispersion of the population in such an extensive geography, as well as the objective difficulty that this depopulation poses for the permanence of some parish nuclei. This problem is compounded by the high average age of the diocesan clergy and the worrying crisis of vocations to the priesthood, which, sadly, prevents the necessary generational replacement"..

In their opinion, the situation cannot lead to "A sterile lament; every crisis challenges and calls to focus on the essential. In other words, in the face of this reality a question arises: in what way can our Diocese of Osma-Soria continue to carry out in its territory the mission received from Christ, making up for the weakness of the parish understood in the traditional way? The cultural, social and religious change calls for a widening of our gaze"..

Honda renovation

The objective is, therefore, according to Bishop Martínez Varea, a transformation with the horizon of the mission. "In fact, if the parish wants to be transformed at its root, it must return to the source and recover the original freshness of the Gospel. Within the Church, every renewal must aim at mission as its goal, so as not to fall into a kind of ecclesial introversion. Faced with the situation before us, we cannot remain passively waiting in our temples".

"Until a few years ago." -The bishop went on, delving deeper into the being of the parish, "The parish used to be identified with a portion of the faithful with their parish priest, most of the time a resident. Today it is no longer possible to maintain that 'one priest, one parish'. The problem is not only the lack of priests, but we are witnessing a new time in which the key is unity and communion (priests, laity, consecrated life). In our Diocese, except in a few cases, there is an identity between population nucleus and parish, but the truth is that for many years now most of our parishes are not capable of incarnating and projecting the basic elements that make up every parish: to be a community of communities, a constant center of missionary sending, a place of communion and participation, an instance of formation of agents of evangelization...".

Demographic crisis

Before continuing with the bishop's reflection, perhaps it would be appropriate to focus a little on the demographic data that he has just cited about "depopulation".

"We are moving from being a country where one grandparent looked after four grandchildren, to a country where all four grandparents watch over a single grandchild."The average ageing of the Spanish population, which is very worrying in terms of its magnitude and rate of growth, has reached very high levels in a large part of Spain, according to the executive. The average ageing of the Spanish population, which is very worrying because of its magnitude and rate of growth, in the opinion of the executive, has reached very high levels in a large part of Spain, and the average age continues to grow at a rate of approximately two years per decade. By autonomous communities, Castilla y León is the region with the highest percentage of people over 80 years of age, not only in Spain, but in Europe as a whole, out of a total of more than 200 regions (NUTS 2, in the terminology of Eurostat). Asturias is third, and Galicia is fifth. By provinces or equivalents (the NUTS 3 regions, in the terminology of Eurostat) with at least 100,000 inhabitants, which are more than 1,500 in total in Europe, Orense is the one with the highest percentage of people aged 65 and over, and Zamora is the second. Lugo is tenth. 

Comparison between Soria and Jaén

"The major cause of depopulation in rural provinces in the last 40 years has been and continues to be the insufficient birth rate. The cases of Soria and Jaén are very illustrative", said Alejandro Macarrón. "Jaén, with much more net emigration than Soria since 1975, has lost far fewer inhabitants, and its population is considerably less aged. This is due to the fact that its average fertility rate has been much higher than Soria's in past decades (no longer)".

Only a couple of the data given by the engineer, based on the National Institute of Statistics, are offered. The number of children per woman in Spain in Jaén in 1975 was 2.71; in Soria, 1.84, and the Spanish average, 2.77. In 2018, the three data are equal: Jaén, 1.27; Soria, 1.27, and Spanish average, 1.25 children per woman. Among other arguments, the consultant pointed out that "The structuring and stability of the family has a very clear relationship with fertility, and any serious birth plan must take this aspect into account". 

The parish community, according to the bishop

Abilio Martínez Varea, has to do with the characteristics of the parish community resulting from the process, which has always been the result of the process. "would have a logic of integration, and not of mere aggregation", and in which "a much greater accent on people than on things". That is to say, the bishop clarifiesIt is a matter of putting the faithful at the center of the life of the parish. In this way it will be possible to overcome the mistaken idea that a parish is deprived of a priest only because he does not live in the parish house, while at the same time freeing the priest from the need to multiply celebrations and various initiatives according to the number of (canonical) parishes entrusted to him. It is not a matter of a merely nominalistic question or even of the need to propose another structure because of the lack of clergy, but of the need to ensure in every community a rich environment of Christian life with all its components".

The profile of this parish community would be as followsSince parishes would not juridically disappear as such, from now on it is proposed to speak of parish communities to indicate a group of parishes under the care of the same priest. The elements that make up the parish community are the same: a certain number of faithful and a priest who presides over the community in the name of the Bishop. What changes, among other things, is the extension, which comprises more and more nuclei. 

The parish community, understood as a group of Christians and their presbyter in a larger territory than in the past, needs, according to the Bishop of Soria, "make an effort to understand themselves as 'one', and thus organize what is necessary for a true experience of faith in this reality. In short, the reform of parish organization must follow a logic of integration and not mere aggregation, that is, rather than suppressing nearby parishes by merging them into a larger one, it is intended to put the parishes "in network" to promote a joint pastoral care. This does not mean the impoverishment or abandonment of the small nuclei, but the opposite. The strong sense of a single parish community will be the occasion for a better sharing of resources by creating the necessary lay ministries for the various areas of common life (liturgical animators, those in charge of charity, those responsible for administration...), as well as a single pastoral council. In fact, in this new understanding of parish service, the involvement of the laity is essential".

The reflection also touched on some comments similar to those made by Alejandro Macarrón: "In this task of thinking about how we will be able to shepherd the Diocese in the immediate future, we will keep in mind the social element of our province, the distribution of the population, the most populated centers and something very important: we cannot proceed with this reorganization starting from the present situation but rather thinking about what it will be like in five or ten years where presumably there will be a very reduced number of faithful and priests".

In terms of extension and configuration, there will be parish communities of different types: large, socially significant centers, with small nuclei that gravitate around them; groups of nuclei similar in terms of their social thickness among which it will be necessary to identify a center; or parish communities in the city of Soria.

There was also a call to "To overcome some obstacles such as the fear of the small nuclei to be absorbed by the big ones, the self-sufficiency syndrome of the latter, the individualistic culture of our time that modifies the Christian identity by emptying it of the sense of ecclesial belonging, the 'parochialism', etc. In this new path of collaboration and co-responsibility, the communion between priests, religious and laity and their willingness to work together constitute the necessary premise for a new way of doing pastoral work"..

In his conclusion, Bishop Martínez Varea emphasized the missionary focus: "In Evangelii gaudium the Pope wants all structures in the Church to become more missionary. The reform of the parish is the first concrete statement that the Pope makes when dealing with the renewal of structures. This already indicates that he also thinks of the parish as the manifestation of the Church closest to the faithful. And it suggests that, if the pastor and the community put themselves affectively and effectively in a missionary key, the renewal of the parish will be a fact". n

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