December 9, 2023

By Thomas Eskro

Beginning last month, the first phase of the Set Ablaze pastoral planning process has been put into motion. Pastorates have been created, new pastors installed, and parochial vicars assigned and moved around the diocese. The pastorate model is designed to provide a stable structure for years to come.

As a lay parish employee, I have the unique experience of having one foot in both the lay and ecclesial worlds. I often think of lay parish workers as the “knights” of church ministry (think chess). We do not really have the authority or firepower of the queen, bishops or rooks, but we are familiar and savvy enough to navigate around parish life, encouraging and directing parishioners in the work and mission of the parish. 

From this unique vantage point, I’ve been asked to outline a few thoughts I have about Set Ablaze and where our diocese is headed in the future. The following are three opportunities that I am hopeful Set Ablaze will help us embrace as we seek to grow as a missionary church in eastern South Dakota.

Opportunity #1: A shared responsibility for evangelization

Every baptized member of the Church is conformed to Jesus Christ in his mission. At the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord commissions the Apostles by saying, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). 

The work of evangelization (proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and his Church and helping others receive and embrace it) is primarily meant to be the work of the everyday lay Catholic, as we are the ones who live and work in the secular world. With the reduction in the number of priests available for active ministry in our diocese, this truth is as important to embrace as ever: the future of the Church depends upon a shared responsibility for the task of evangelization between lay people and clergy.

Opportunity #2: Standing together as Catholics

An unfortunate byproduct of the Christendom culture is treating other parish communities as competition rather than coworkers. Parishes can easily be drawn into making comparisons over size, attendance, finances, programming, pastors or any number of petty categories. In doing so we fail to recognize the real enemy: Satan and his demonic forces who seek to divide and destroy. 

Catholics within the pastorate structure will need to rely on one another as brothers and sisters in Christ in order to foster a deep sense of Christian community that together seeks to draw more people into communion through a common mission. Like it or not, we are all caught up in a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. To fail to recognize our common enemy and band together in this battle will only lead to a dysfunctional and susceptible pastorate.

Opportunity #3: Time to play offense

Bishop DeGrood and our clergy are implementing a plan that seeks to equip and mobilize faithful Catholics to not just be disciples, but missionary disciples. This means going out of our way to seek and save the lost. 

Too often, our parishes get stuck in “defense” mode—waiting for people to contact us, come to us and read what we’re writing or saying. To be missionary is to play offense; it’s to intentionally pray for, sacrifice for, build friendship with, and take the initiative to invite others in our lives to come to know the Lord in a deep, life-giving way that changes everything. 

If we maintain a defensive posture in our pastoral ministry, we can expect the startling trends outlined in the Current Reality Report to continue. Set Ablaze offers us an opportunity to go on the offense.

In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) Pope Francis exhorts parishes to be a place that “encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers…a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach” (EG, 28). 

If our pastorates can foster this sort of environment as outposts of the great commission by equipping the lay faithful to take up the work of evangelization and avoid petty in fighting characteristic of a dying parish culture, then Set Ablaze will have accomplished what it has set out to do: draw the people of eastern South Dakota deeper into the mystery of God for years to come.