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Catholic diocese celebrates 50 years in Tampa Bay and forges plan for the future

LANCE ROTHSTEIN | Special to The Times The Most Reverend Gregory L. Parkes, J.C.D., Fifth Bishop of Saint Petersburg, during the observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the canonical establishment of the Diocese of Saint Petersburg at the Cathedral of Saint Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg on Saturday, June 6, 2018.
Published Jun. 16, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — At his installation as spiritual leader of Tampa Bay's Catholics, Bishop Gregory Parkes promised to take time to get to know his people, listen to what they had to say and work to discern a plan for the future.

On Sunday, 17 months later, a vision for the five-county Diocese of St. Petersburg is being unveiled at Mass. The timing coincides with the 50th anniversary of the diocese, an occasion celebrated Saturday with a service at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle and attended by the Pope's representative to the United States.

"As we celebrate our 50th anniversary as a diocese, of course it's a time of joy and hope, but also a time to look back with gratitude," Parkes said during an interview in his office in St. Petersburg.

"And when we look back at our history as a diocese ... we've had a great impact on the community and the communities that we serve. I think that it's important for us to recognize that and to celebrate that."

And plan a future for the area's 470,000 Catholics.

The diocese's new, "mutually-shared vision" focuses on evangelization, alleviating social and economic hardships and meeting the spiritual needs of youth and young adults.

"Our vision," Parkes said, "is four words, 'courageously living the gospel.' "

The Rev. Robert Schneider, pastor of St. Cecelia Catholic Church in Clearwater, condensed the idea into an acronym, PIE: "Proclaim the presence of Christ in our midst. Invite people in and accompany them on the journey. And hope they encounter Christ."

Those are not empty words, Schneider said. "We are trying to be real specific. Everything has a date on it," he said of the diocese's plans. "We are not pie in the sky, we are pie on the real Earth."

Here are the specifics:

• The diocese's nine deaneries, or groups of parishes, will each launch an initiative to address one local community issue and implement it by Dec. 31, 2019.

• Eight to 10 new affordable housing facilities for families and singles to be managed by Catholic Charities will be established by the end of 2021.

• Parishes will establish or enhance youth ministries by July 1, 2020, and the diocese will hire three regional associate directors of youth and young adult ministry by July 1, 2019.

• A new Catholic elementary school will open in time for the 2021-22 school year.

• Student participation at established campus ministries will be increased by 1000 percent and new Catholic student communities will be created at all colleges and universities in the diocese by Easter (April 4) 2021.

• Implement "effective" evangelization and family ministry strategies by Pentecost (June 9) 2019.

• Parishes will prepare missionary disciples by Pentecost (May 31) 2020.

• By Pentecost 2020, parishes will enhance or establish family ministries to respond to "the diverse needs" of families.

The vision for the next three years evolved after months of what Parkes has referred to as "listening sessions," other gatherings and online surveys across the diocese, whose geographical boundaries encompass Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties.

He wanted to know, Parkes said, "What are we doing well as a diocese? What are the areas perhaps that we need to improve upon, and what should we be focusing on as a local church?"

START OF AN ERA: Gregory Parkes installed as bishop of St. Petersburg Diocese.

To help review the information and formulate a vision for the diocese, Parkes convened a visioning team and hired a consultant to guide the process.

"We looked at a lot of social stats and demographics of our five counties. There was a lot of discussion about that and what could we do, what the bishop could initiate that would set a good example of what we need to do for the people of our community," said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities and a member of the visioning team.

"We need to set an example as a church that we love all people and we serve all people," said Murphy, who spearheaded the launch of Pinellas Hope, the homeless shelter for adults, under Bishop Robert Lynch.

Parkes said three things seemed to resonate with the 1,200 people who participated in the online survey and those who attended the listening sessions, focus groups and gatherings.

"The first was the need to engage our youth and young adults," he said. "The second was education, both Catholic education and faith formation in our parishes and in our schools, and the third was the social mission of our church, which is our outreach to the poor, to the homeless, to anyone who is in need."

Sue Brett, a parishioner at St. Jude's and another member of the visioning team, said she was impressed with the bishop's role in helping define the diocese's goals.

"He took to heart everything that was submitted, from the most major issues to the least. There were many, many wonderful suggestions and criticisms," she said.

"I was pleased and surprised that one of the main focuses ... was the concern about the youth and the youth being welcomed and feeling welcome in the Catholic Church. They are not just the future of the church, they are totally present with the church, too. I mean right here, right now. People tend to look at youth down the road. They have the power to move things forward."

As it got ready to celebrate its Golden Jubilee, the diocese prepared a fact sheet of its contributions in the Tampa Bay community. Included are the area's six Catholic hospitals, support for better working conditions in the wake of the civil rights-era sanitation strike in St. Petersburg and the creation of a community of safe, affordable homes for farmworker families in the Dover and the Plant City area. In 2013, it opened the Pasco Women's Shelter for women and children.

There's still work to be done, said Schneider, who also sat on the visioning team.

"Even though we have achieved a lot, we still look to what we can do in the future and that's what this whole visioning process was all about. What can we do now in the 21st century to proclaim, invite and enable people to encounter Christ's love?" he said.

"It is a whole vision of how we fit into this society. I think our commitment to affordable housing and to youth is something for everyone, in spite of race or creed."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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