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Portage County Catholics heard from The Most Rev. David Bonnar, bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown, on Tuesday, many seeing him in person for the first time since he was appointed almost a year ago.
The gathering, which took place at the Overlook in Franklin Township, was part of the Dinner and Doctrine series sponsored by the Portage County Deanery, a group of Catholic parishes in Portage County. Bonnar oversees the Diocese of Youngstown, which includes six counties, including Portage County's 10 parishes. He was installed in January to succeed The Most Rev. George Murry, who died the previous June after a battle with cancer.
Bonnar said the date of the gathering is "forever emblazoned on my heart" because it came on the one-year anniversary of being offered his appointment as a bishop.
"I couldn't believe the Holy Father was calling on me, a parish priest, to do his very important work," he said.
Bonnar said he has only visited two of Portage County's parishes since he was installed in January, and told the capacity crowd that he was "humbled by all of you who came here tonight."
His talk was titled, "The Changing Face of the Parish," and he acknowledged that many parishes have closed their schools, have merged, or have a priest who also is overseeing another parish. In response to a question from an audience member, he added that "canon law" requires that no priest say more than three Masses in a single day, and eight priests in the diocese, including on in Portage, were exceeding that limit at any one time.
In Portage County, only three parishes — Immaculate Conception in Ravenna, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Aurora and St. Joan of Arc, have a priest who is not also serving elsewhere. In Kent, the Rev. Richard Pentello oversees both St. Patrick and the University Parish Newman Center; the Rev. Zachary Coulter oversees both St. Joseph in Mogadore and St. Peter of the Fields; and the Rev. Edward Stafford oversees three parishes C St. Joseph in Mantua, St. Ambrose in Garrettsville and St. Michael in Windham. St. Michael is no longer an active parish, and switched to "oratory" status in 2019, meaning it is open only for special Masses and prayer services.
"You need to be adaptable," Bonnar told the group. "It's not about survival of the fittest, but survival of the adaptable."
He said parishes need to be mission-oriented, staying in close contact with the people, and called on members to go out and evangelize. That, he said, can be as basic as inviting somebody to Mass, or offering to say a prayer with them.
"Ministry is not meant to be hoarded or possessed," he said. "It is meant to be shared."
The Youngstown Diocese is one of 87 "mission dioceses" and has received more than $1 million in support from the Catholic Extension Society over the past 10 years for programs and ministries.
He offered six strategies to make the church more mission-oriented. They included making a greater effort to move from maintenance to mission; to "go to the peripheries" and "be the church where there is no church," and to think of the church not as a building but as a "community called to action."
He said it is also important to have a "greater sense of accompaniment," which he defined as walking with people with whom they may disagree. He told the story about a former employee of the parish where he was serving, whose son attended a church event wearing a skirt. Bonnar said he emailed the man and asked his child's new name, so he could use it as a sign of "respect and dignity."
"While I do not understand this reality, I cannot deny the fact that this struggling person is a child of God," he said.
He also called on Catholics to commit to "ongoing conversion" and to embrace the future, rather than look to the nostalgia of the past.
This month, he said, two parish buildings in Campbell in Mahoning County will close. Three parishes, he said, merged years ago under Murry's leadership, but alternated meeting in their old parish buildings to accommodate people in each congregation. That situation turned out to be unworkable, and the congregation now will have only one worship site. Two of the parish buildings will close this month. There is "resistance" to the move, Bonnar acknowledged.
"For too long, we have regarded our parishes as buildings," he said.
After his talk, Bonnar answered questions from members of the congregation, including one from a woman opposed to children wearing masks in school.
Bonnar said the church "takes seriously the safety of those entrusted to us," and met with pubic health officials, who encouraged masks, because the Delta variant of COVID-19 is more contagious than the original virus.
"Our children are not yet vaccinated," he said. He said the issue will be revisited once infection numbers "get to where they need to be."
Reporter Diane Smith, who has reported on many Catholic church stories over the years despite not having a Catholic background, can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Record-Courier: Newly named bishop addresses Portage County Catholics in Twin Lakes