Recently, Ascension Parish announced the news that outgoing pastor Rev. Jim Hurlbert would be succeeded by Rev. Carl Morello, current pastor of St. Giles Parish, who will continue at St. Giles but serve as administrator at Ascension, and Rev. Rex Pillai, formerly of St. Clement in Chicago, who will serve as the pastoral leader. This more or less coincides with the Chicago Archdiocese’s Renew My Church process coming to Oak Park. All of this suggests significant change to church business as usual, so as they wait for all of these developments to take effect, we asked some of Ascension’s parishioners for their reactions.

Gina Orlando and Marty Berg:

We are excited by the creative Archdiocesan solution for Ascension with our new priests. Our friends at St. Giles and the St. Giles Family Mass have always said that Fr. Carl is a wonderful pastor. His support of the Family Mass program tells us he is open to a progressive spirituality with strong lay involvement and leadership, which sounds like a good match for us. What we hear about Fr. Rex Pillai is also wonderful. Being from Sri Lanka he will add his energy, open-hearted warmth, and the richness of his experience from Jesus’ side of the world.

We hope Fr. Carl is not overworked with his role as administrator as we shift into the Renew My Church changes. A very helpful part of that “renewal” would be for the Catholic Church to open up the priesthood to married men and women. This would ease the priest shortage and could draw more people back to church and into the true inclusive ministry of Jesus, which focuses on love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy and justice for all peoples.

It’s time for these changes for our culture, church and climate. Can the big system make this shift? We hold the vision that it can. “Come, Holy Spirit” is our daily prayer.

Gina Orlando and Marty Berg are longtime members of Ascension, the choir, and the HOME (Honoring Our Mother Earth) Creation Care team.

Tom Gull

As far as how it will work, I think it will be just fine. Ascension has a great pastoral staff. I’m sure both priests will work well with them.

Tom Gull is a former parish business manager and longtime parishioner.

Celine Woznica

We’ve been learning about Renew My Church for a couple of years now and have heard about how it has affected other parishes in the archdiocese. Many of us thought it would translate into closures and mergers of Oak Park parishes, but this plan appears to be different with a more streamlined utilization of resources and a recognition of the different parishes’ strengths. I am looking forward to more collaboration and sharing of each parish’s gifts without so much duplication.

When I was growing up, our pastor considered a “mixed marriage” when you married someone from another parish. Our parishes were silos, sometimes even in competition with each other. Those days are gone, thank goodness, and our doors and windows have been opened for Oak Park Catholics to build a larger, more diverse, and dynamic community among the four parishes. We have been attending events and faith formation opportunities at each other’s parishes for years, but now I feel there will be more coordination in the planning.

Although it is very hard for this transition to occur in the midst of a pandemic, in many ways the experience of the pandemic and the shutdown prepared us for the change in parish leadership and structure. There is no way we will be going back to the way things were before, even if the same pastoral team were in charge. The pandemic and the forced closures of our church buildings brought forth a different meaning of “Church” and living our faith.

Fr. Hurlbert and the parish staff have been sharing wonderful liturgical resources for us, including videotaped homilies and organ music, but it has been up to us to be proactive in planning and implementing our “home church” prayer life. We can no longer be passive recipients on Sunday mornings, walking into church to take part in a liturgy planned by someone else. Now we act with intention, searching for Masses available online, reflecting on the Scripture readings, and listening to a number of different homilies. The end result is a deeper appreciation of a universal Church and the many and diverse gifts within the Archdiocese.

The Renew My Church structure within Oak Park calls us to do the same — get out of our silos, be proactive in our faith life, and celebrate each parish’s unique gifts that reflect a more diverse Church. Although Ascension will always be my “home” parish, I see myself now as an Oak Park Catholic.

It does seem like a good move, recognizing the difficult situation that the Archdiocese finds itself in. Of course, if the Church allowed women and married men to be ordained, they wouldn’t be in this predicament — but that’s a discussion for another time. The pros I have listed above; the cons include a possible loss of community as our gatherings will incorporate a geographically wider area, and the fact that not everyone has the time or the bandwidth to be proactive and intentional in their faith life. Just getting to Mass on Sunday itself is a Herculean task. I am glad that at least regular Sunday and daily Masses will continue.

I am optimistic about the parish and Archdiocesan situation in general, as I find it a very creative response to a difficult state of affairs as the Archdiocese deals with the shortage of priests and financial resources. Fr. Pillai will be our associate pastor, a role that will also call on him to be a faith facilitator as we walk a wider path in our spiritual formation.

It is very, very sad that we cannot give Fr. Hurlbert the sendoff he deserves after leading our parish for five years. I deeply regret that he cannot celebrate his final Mass as pastor, followed by a picnic on the parish green.

Celine Woznica has been a member of Ascension parish since the family moved to Oak Park in 1992. All five children graduated from Ascension School. She served on the school board, the Peace and Justice Committee and many other volunteer activities, including the youth service trips to Appalachia and Tijuana.

Mary Catherine Meek

Whereas I think when the assignments came out we were a little surprised, now after thinking about it, I think we can all see how this is a very positive move. There’s a lot of potential. It has been the goal of renew my church to join Parishes, given the statistics, and by making the direct connection to St. Giles, it helps move us in the direction of the renew my church goal. Our Oak Park grouping will take place in the spring of 2022. In the meantime, Oak Park Parishes will have significant opportunities to collaborate together on different issues, discovering the leadership and strengths of a particular parish in potential areas of ministry and providing an avenue for our collective energy to provide the best care for the Catholic people attending these Oak Park parishes. We already collaborate on a number of issues most notably home which is based in Ascension Parish and peace and justice issues which are spread out among the parishes. So I think this is good news! Just, perhaps, a little unexpected and a new model.

Mary Catherine Meek is a pastoral associate at Ascension Church.

Dan Doody

Renew my Church is, from a business perspective, a glorified label for asset management. With a shortage of priests, declining congregations, and a glut of old, underutilized buildings, the Archdiocese is reshuffling the pieces and calling it “renewal.” I wish leadership had taken the opportunity to recalibrate through spiritual renewal, which is especially needed following the decades of sexual abuse of Catholic children by the clergy and the years and the millions spent in covering up this grievous sin. If renewal had taken a spiritual spin, Catholics would be encouraged to mobilize to the front lines to feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for the poor, and join with the oppressed in their struggle for justice.

But instead we’re asked to respond to asset management and fall in line with the new plan. Given that paradigm, the coming changes at Ascension (and St. Giles) make sense. I’ve always thought the job of pastor – CEO of a complicated $2-5$ million dollar enterprise – requires such wide ranging skills that the seminary cannot possibly adequately train people for. So that the pastor’s job is now divided in two – with Fr. Carl taking care of administration of the two parishes and Fr. Rex taking care of the ministerial needs of the parish members – is actually long overdue. I’m particularly pleased Fr. Rex is a person of color. Let’s open up the dialogue between the races and let’s build many more bridges between our parish and our sharing parish on the West side, St. Martin de Porres. That’s the renewal I’m craving.

I’ll get excited about the Church’s prospects for renewal when living the Gospel is the emphasis of Church-wide renewal and asset management is left to the accountants.

More than your questions asked for. As I said, feel free to quote me and use what you need.

Dan Doody has been a parishioner for 53 years, serving on numerous parish committees.

Greg Peters

I think this different process by the Archdiocese relates to the issue that they are going to have with Oak Park’s four Catholic parishes. All are pretty vibrant and three of the four also have elementary schools. Whether the “sharing” of priests, by duties and responsibilities, is where they are heading, only time will tell. Ascension’s Pastor Jim Hurlbert’s leaving sooner than anticipated, I think, has forced their hand to start the process sooner.

Parishioners of each of the parishes are pretty passionate about their parishes. I think most folks would accept a modified leadership model versus “losing” their parish church to a merger. I’m sure the Archdiocese continues to look for new options on how to do a “renewal” for every parish. The process has been painful for many Catholics. Will Oak Park’s “solution” be a model for other area parishes that have vibrant and relatively healthy financial positions?

COVID has definitely added another strain to parish life. How folks come together in the future will depend a lot on how the “Renew My Church” process unfolds. I think it would be a good idea for the Archdiocese to lay out their plans sooner than later once the new leadership duo starts after July 1. Openness about what they are thinking will be key going forward.

Greg Peters has been a parishioner since 1977. He served on the Parish Finance Committee for a dozen years under two previous pastors.

Charlaine McAnany

I think with the shortage of priests and the fewer number of Catholics in the pews, I am satisfied with the new arrangement. Naturally, I wish the Church would ordain women and then there would be no shortage of priests. Would Catholics come back if women were priests? That is the other thing. We have these big churches that cost money. Should Oak Park keep all four churches open? I wouldn’t want to sit on that committee to decide that. I personally do not think “Renew my Church” is working. Should it mean “Getting to know Christ better and imitating him?” If so, I don’t see it in just joining churches and closing others. For now I am just glad they did not close Ascension, and so we go forward with a pastor over two churches and a live-in priest who works under him.

Charlaine McAnany is a longtime and very active Ascension parishioner.

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