Priestly Life and Ministry in the Diocese of Portland
A VAST AND EXCITING GEOGRAPHY
Serving in the Diocese of Portland is unlike any other ministry, a special place unmatched in its storied history, caring people, and beautiful scenery. Sprawling canvases of rural life, urban development, welcoming beaches, the unmistakable aroma of the ocean while driving along its coast, and the swishing of skis in its many mountainous areas. Maine is rich in its natural beauty. Life as a priest in the diocese offers the opportunity to explore and enjoy the many fruits of the state and its benevolent residents, but also requires a desire to serve large and varied, social and geographical regions. These regions each have their own characteristics that priests in our state come to know and love.
THE SOUTHERN COAST
This area of the diocese is the most densely populated and rapidly growing part of our state. Most parishioners in this area work in the greater Portland area, although some commute down to the Boston area as well. The Catholic population has been growing in this part of our diocese, as parishioners from out of state and from the north of Maine are filling the pews. Portland is a vibrant city, offering many cultural and recreational opportunities, and it is also home to a number of diverse and vibrant Catholic parishes, including the cathedral of our Diocese: the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
THE WESTERN MOUNTAINS
This sparsely populated area of our diocese is known for the beautiful Appalachian Mountains, expansive pine forests, and pristine ponds and lakes that are home to many camps in the summer. During the winter, many people come to the mountains to ski and snowboard. Baxter State Park is home to majestic Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine and the end point of the Appalachian Trail. This is one of the most sparsely populated areas in Maine, with vast distances between parishes and many wonderful fishing holes.
THE RIVER TOWNS
In the past, the inland mill towns and other cities along I-95 were the heart of the Catholic faith in Maine. Millinocket, Lincoln, Old Town, Bangor, Waterville, Augusta, Lewiston, Westbrook, Biddeford, and Sanford: these towns boasted huge populations of Irish and French-Canadian mill workers who filled our churches each weekend.
They were also vibrant economic centers from the middle of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th century, providing much of the revenue for the works of the Church in Maine during those years. In recent decades, however, the mills have for the most part closed, and those towns that are not located in the southern part of the state have struggled economically. As the Catholic population has moved away and finances have been strained, many churches in these areas have had to shutter their doors. Yet there are strong and vibrant pockets of Catholics, often of Irish and French-Canadian heritage, that are working to address the economic and social challenges of this part of our state and to ensure that our Church continues to minister in these areas, especially to those who are in need.
The “Down East” coastal communities of our Diocese are where the Catholic faith has the deepest roots, dating back to the 17th century. It is a rugged terrain, and Catholics have always been a minority in this part of our state. The quaint fishing villages along the beautiful rocky coast are dotted with occasional Catholic churches, serving small but dedicated communities that manage to cobble a living together, mostly through the tourism industry. Down East Maine boasts some of the most picturesque and exclusive communities in the diocese but is also home to some of the most grinding poverty. The people who live here are hardy folk, and the parishes are animated by an independent and stalwart faith.
Aroostook County, or “The County” is the traditional Catholic stronghold of the diocese, where Catholics make up the greatest percentage of the population. The French speaking communities of the St. John Valley, in particular, have provided dozens of priests to the diocese, and have been a vibrant center of Catholic life in Maine for centuries. Although with the closing of Loring Air Force Base and the decline in the mills, the population in the County has been slowly dwindling, the Catholic faith still remains very strong among these “frozen chosen.” The people in this part of our diocese are known for their strong work ethic, close-knit communities, deep faith, and tasty potatoes.
MINISTRY IN MULTIPLE PARISHES AND COMMUNITIES
The diocese is comprised of 48 parishes, including 147 churches, covering 35,385 square miles. When Fr. Cheverus was here in the 19th century, he did the journeying on horseback. Today, technological advancements make the traveling an easier experience, but the variety of nationalities, social and economic disparity, and a more secular society conspire to challenge priests who wish to form connections between parishioners in a church, and multiple churches in a parish. The number of priests ministering in the Diocese of Portland has been in decline for at least 30 years, which has had a dramatic impact on priestly ministry in Maine today. As the impact of the smaller number of priests began to manifest itself in the 1990s, Bishop Joseph Gerry brought together a group to look at how to face these challenges going into the future.
In 2004, Bishop Richard Malone began the implementation of a plan to reconfigure the diocese called “Telling Anew the Story of Jesus.” The main effort of the plan was to begin a process called “clustering” throughout the diocese. Over the next 10 years, parishes across the state were merged and suppressed and some churches were closed. Administration was centralized and parish programs were consolidated. Through this difficult and arduous process, the diocese went from 136 canonical parishes in 2002 to 32 clusters made up of 57 parishes in 2012. Today, most of the work of this “clustering” process has been completed, and priests have adjusted to the new way in which we are called upon to minister to our people.
In many respects, it is a return to our past, when priests in Maine worked together with other priests to cover vast territories and multiple parish communities. However, today priests are blessed with the addition of consolidated parish administration and religious education offices that are overseen by lay staff who aid them in recruiting and coordinating volunteers at different churches and locations. Whereas in the past there was often competition between pastors and parishes, particularly in larger towns where churches are closer to one another, today the parishes are often marked by a spirit of cooperation and mutual support. By coming together and working to build up the faith that unites us, parishes are able to be good stewards of their resources and witness the faith to their communities in ways that would not have been possible when they were on their own.
How have all of these changes directly impacted the life and ministry of priests in our diocese? Certainly, in many ways, but most notably in the following:
- Unlike 15 years ago, in most assignments today, priests are living and working closely with other priests to meet the needs of a large parish community. This has its challenges – working together can be difficult at times – but working closely with one another provides a new fraternity, encouragement, and accountability that was not available to priests in the past.
- Whereas in the past, most parishes only had a very limited volunteer or part-time staff, today priests in our diocese often oversee and are aided by a robust team of lay staff. Consolidating finances has allowed many parishes to hire full-time lay staff who are trained in theology and ministry. The capability of these staff members challenges priests to learn how to lead, manage, and work with a team of professionals in accomplishing the work of the Church. For the priest who is skilled in delegation and sharing of ministry, this collaborative work can be a very rewarding aspect of his ministry.
- Most priests in our diocese today find themselves serving a weekend Mass schedule that rotates through various communities over the course of two or three weeks. This rotation means that it takes longer to get to know the people and makes it more difficult to keep up with the developments in their lives. Priests are learning to meet these challenges by sharing more information about the parish with each other and with staff so that they can be aware of events even when they are not able to be present. They have also learned that they must take more initiative to form relationships with their people outside of Mass – at other gatherings throughout the week or at various community events.
- Most parishes in our diocese are now made up of multiple churches and properties and thousands of families. Many times, they span large distances and bring together people from different communities and perspectives. This has meant that when priests look at those entrusted to their care, they are looking at a much bigger picture than they were 20 years ago. Although sometimes overwhelming, this new perspective allows our priests to take into account the larger realities that are impacting their area of ministry and to take more thoughtful and effective pastoral measures in seeking to serve their people.
- A perennial challenge for the priest is found in his work of building up and sustaining a loving and close-knit community in his parish. Even though the clustering process is for the most part complete, the priests of our diocese still often find themselves running up against bitterness, resentment, rivalries, and jealousies that are obstacles to the health of the parish. Priests are continually called upon to heal past wounds and to build bridges between different communities and elements of the parish. Though often challenging and frustrating, this aspect of priestly ministry is critical for one who represents our Lord who prayed that his children “may be one.”
- Given the breadth and scope of the pastoral assignments entrusted to most priests in our diocese, it has become increasingly essential for them to learn how to set appropriate limits on the demands made upon their time and attention. This is done not so much by saying ‘no’ to the needs of parishioners as it is by ensuring that adequate time is being set aside for prayer, rest, healthy eating, and relationships with other priests, family, and friends. Whereas in the past, the parish provided many natural supports to balance the life of a priest, today priests must take more initiative in ordering their lives according to the highest goods.
A CLOSE-KNIT AND DEDICATED PRESBYTERATE
Given the large size of our diocese, our priests often find themselves separated from one another by large geographical distances. In order to support and encourage one another in ministry, most priests therefore belong to a group of priests who gather on a regular basis to pray, talk, and share time together. Some of these groups are known as "Emmaus Groups," and other groups go without formal names. In either case, these regular gatherings of brother priests with one another are an important source of community and strength for them.
CLERGY INSTITUTE AND RETREATS
As part of their ministry each year, priests and deacons from the entire diocese gather together with the bishop for a week of training, discussions, and social time each year in May. The annual clergy institute has been held in Bar Harbor for many years now and has featured notable speakers such as Bishop Robert Barron, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and others.
VICARIATES AND THE VICAR FOR CLERGY
Like many dioceses, the Diocese of Portland is divided into six geographical regions, called "vicariates." The bishop names one of the priests of each region "Vicar for Reign," assigning him with special responsibilities in support of his brother priests in the region. A chief responsibility is to gather priests of the vicariate together regularly for meetings and discussions.
In addition to the Vicars for Reign, the bishop also appoints a Vicar for Clergy for the entire diocese. The priest who assumes this role works to be aware of the needs of his brother priests and to assist them with any difficulties that may arise and provide support and encouragement to them in ministry. He is also serves on the Presbyteral Council and Personnel Board, providing important consultation to the bishop and other priests entrusted with leadership in the diocese.
A HARVEST READY FOR LABORERS
Maine is one of the most secular states in the United States according to many recent surveys of religious practice and affiliation. Whereas in other parts of the country, there is widespread religious belief and connection to church communities, in Maine it is quite common to encounter families with little to no tie to a religious tradition, even going back a number of generations. This widespread lack of religiosity presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the Church, and by extension for her priests. The challenge is that a basic religious awareness cannot be presumed among the people, and often, resources and support are lacking in the overall culture. Sometimes the Church encounters outright hostility. Yet in the midst of these challenges, there is also an opportunity to reach many people who have never heard the Good News and find in the teaching and life of the Church a heretofore undiscovered "pearl of great price."
The unfortunately large number of fallen-away Catholics throughout the country is also reflected in Maine but also provides an opportunity for outreach. An open and honest conversation often reveals that, with a small amount of teaching and care, the worldliness, difficulties, and misunderstandings that have led a family to grow cold in their religious practice can be overcome and a new and deeper faith life begun. Furthermore, because of the lack of cultural understanding and support, those Catholics who are in the pews each week are there because they have made a conscious and deliberate decision, rather than simply being carried along by a cultural current. Priests consistently encounter a rugged and profound faith throughout the state - particularly in the young, who must often make counter-cultural choices in their efforts to live an authentic Catholic life.