When churches closed in mid-March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, 3-year-old Avery emptied her piggy bank to give to “God’s house” because he needed it more than she did. Olson is the granddaughter of Jackie Aune, adult faith formation coordinator for St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception Parish in Hammond. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

“The year 2020 has certainly proved to be one of the most extraordinary and challenging we will face in our lifetime … The sight of empty churches brought a real understanding to many that the church is not just bricks and mortar. The church is truly an embodiment of its people.”

Bishop James P. Powers wrote these introductory comments in the brochure announcing the 2020/2021 Catholic Services Appeal.

The rollout for the annual appeal started in August in parishes with increased summer populations and will continue in all parishes in September. The accompanying publication and video have been released via a mailing and on the Diocese of Superior’s website, catholicdos.org.

In line with the chosen theme of “Together in mission, Alive in hope,” the bishop added, “The year 2020 has shown us that no matter what the obstacles, true disciples put their faith in action and live it each day by what we say and do.”

Bishop Powers also introduces the 16-minute Catholic Services Appeal video, giving a nod to individuals who have embraced their faith and mission to serve and bring the good news to the people of the Diocese of Superior.

The testimonies that follow include Catholic school personnel, a diocesan seminarian, a priest and lay leaders on how they have adapted to social-distanced ministry and faith formation considerations.

Laura Ludke, a parishioner of Holy Family Parish in Woodruff, was particularly moved to share her impressions of the video with the diocesan Office of Development.

“I loved it,” she said of how the video portrayed “real life” in the diocese. “It was from the heart.”

Her own desire to give and support comes from a heart recognizing God’s goodness to her and her late husband. She said during these times of struggle for individuals and the church, what the video showcased was “cheerful giving.”

Diocesan development director Steve Tarnowski followed a similar strategy with the publication, including profiles of persons working in diocesan offices and ministries funded by the annual appeal.

Larry French, director of the Office of Finance for the diocese, commented that he sees firsthand “how every person plays an important role in all we count of value … although it is important to pay bills, the salvation of souls is the Catholic Church’s almighty directive. This makes all the difference.”

“All good ministry is relational ministry,” said Chris Hurtubise, associate director of the Office of Catholic Formation.

When he is not organizing and running some of the diocese’s marquee formation events, he spends his time doing just that.

“Half of my time is spent investing in and mentoring people at the parish level who do youth, young adult and family ministry,” he expounded.

Hurtubise added that what has been most joyful and rewarding during his five years working for the diocese has not been the numbers and growth – “rather, it is the people and the difference I have seen Christ and his presence in the church making in their lives.”

Fr. Thomas Thompson, director of the Office of Vocations, explained, “The current COVID virus situation has afforded us the gift of increased time to work with discerners and with our seminarians. Becoming creative with our use of technology has allowed us to connect more frequently and more effectively while reaching larger groups.”

One initiative led by priests on the vocations teams is a weekly online gathering for men discerning the priesthood where they can pray together, discuss issues and answer questions.
Another virtual gathering involves a weekly check-in and night prayer with the diocesan seminarians and some priests.

Fr. Thompson acknowledged that without CSA funding, the work of the Office of Vocations would not be possible. He also shared his experience that “our seminarians are exceptional stewards of what is provided for them.”

He concluded, “We are all aware that the demand for priests in our diocese is great, but I am not as concerned about numbers, but rather that we have provided the strongest possible foundation … for those men called to become priests.”

Chris Newkirk, director of Ecclesial Ministries and Diocesan Consultation, commented on the general sense of responsibility for the shared mission of the diocese:

“Although in our rural mission diocese we may have limited resources, it is evident to me that we are a people of deep faith, generosity, stewardship, the common good, creativity and service.”

The Catholic Herald spoke with diocesan Director of Administrative Services Dan Blank regarding how the pandemic has influenced diocesan support for local schools and parishes, planning and the budget.

Blank celebrated the creativity of the youth programming.

He said the “adaptation and cooperation to embrace the virtual experience and social-distanced activities” deserved a blue ribbon under the circumstances.

He also noted, “COVID-19 has been a great opportunity … it has shaken us up … several of our departments have started to evaluate what needs to change.”

Referencing the changeover from face-to-face meetings and seminars, especially given the diocese’s large geographic territory, Blank said, “Many of the parishes and diocesan offices are taking it to a new level,” finding new ways to reach out to people and work efficiently.

Blank emphasized Bishop Powers’ balancing act between maintaining “some sense of stability of the Catholic Church presence and for the people that work for and help the churches operate,” as well as an absolute commitment “to the communal aspects of our church and our parish life.”
The bishop’s primary concern, according to Blank, has been the health and wellness of the priests and parishioners.

This year’s CSA theme characterizes the response of school, parish and diocesan leadership – together, alive, mission and hope – as the diocese navigated the administrative and ministry challenges presented by the pandemic.

Diocesan administrative offices, especially early on in the pandemic, were able to take the pressure off priests and parish councils in making sense of information and changing guidelines. They responded to inquiries, embraced and encouraged flexible scheduling and work-from-home options. They have advised on employment concerns and provided legal counsel.

Blank also stressed the bishop’s fiscal responsibility and transparency shown in publishing financial reports in the Catholic Herald and the diocesan website as well as challenging all departments to be frugal and insisting on balanced budgets for the chancery offices and parishes.

The CSA’s financial goal of $2.25 million has remained the same for the last three years. That amount covers almost the entire operating budget for the diocesan offices.

Blank noted several grants that have made certain services possible, “but the majority of the budget is (covered) thank to the good people of the diocese.”

He added, given lesser collections in almost all parishes because of the absence of Masses and limits placed on returning to public worship, the bishop made the hard decision of freezing wages for diocesan and parish budgets, including the salaries of priests. For the current fiscal year, no cost-of-living increases have been included.

After careful discernment and consultation with other state Catholic agencies, Bishop Powers directed parish administrations to avail themselves of the federal funds accessible through the CARES Act, the Paycheck Protection Program and emergency income disaster loans.

The diocesan finance department took the lead in understanding and navigating these options, making sense of the opportunities and working with local entities to use them appropriately.

“While normally the church would have nothing to do with government money,” Blank explained, “the protections were put in place, and if the idea was that we were acting under Catholic social teaching and justice to our employees,” he added. “We needed the money to do it.”

He added that funding accessed was not a gift from the government and that, as an employer, the diocese and churches were aiding in keeping the economy moving and their employees – who still pay taxes on their income – financially stable and not worried about losing their jobs.

Looking to longer-term planning and the New Springtime Revisited initiative started last year, Blank said everything was put on hold once the pandemic shut churches’ normal operations down.

“Again, COVID-19 has put some things on the table” than were previously being considered, Blank stated.

As one concrete example, Blank addressed the embracing of technology across the board. He called it “an awakening,” where everyone was “forced to step up their game dramatically to stay connected.”

“We’re really being forced now to look at the mission of the church as opposed to the things that the church does,” Blank said and concluded that with more to consider moving forward, all will benefit. He sees viability and vibrancy increasing as parishes continue to respond to changing needs, adapting under challenges.

“How important it is that we all do what we can to make our mission possible,” Bishop Powers concludes in the CSA video. “In advance I want to thank each of you for the contributions you make – those sacrificial givings that you offer – in service to the diocese, in service to our Lord, in service to our brothers and sisters in Christ.”