A new era for local Catholic churches — and indeed, for all churches in the Diocese of Pittsburgh — begins Monday.

That’s the day when the clock officially begins ticking on the diocese’s initiative to consolidate its 188 parishes into 57. It’s also the day that the new priest assignments that were announced concurrently with the groupings in April take effect, with the administrator of each grouping tasked to spearhead a plan to merge the churches with which he has been entrusted into a single parish.

Each administrator has either one to two years, two to three years or three to four years to accomplish that goal, depending on the classification assigned to his grouping.

In Lawrence County, seven of the existing eight parishes will need to merge before the shortest of those deadlines arrives, and the Rev. James McCaffrey — who once pastored St. James the Apostle Church near New Bedford — has been handed the responsibility to make it happen.

The county’s eighth parish, Holy Redeemer in Ellwood City, has been paired with two Butler County parishes. This grouping will have three to four years to iron out a consolidation plan.

Groups that received just one to two years to merge — such as the seven-church Lawrence County pairing — were assigned that time frame either because they are experiencing financial difficulties or because they already are well on the road to consolidation. Word is, Lawrence County falls under the latter heading.

That says a lot for the parishioners in this group, and their understanding of the challenges facing the diocese as well as the apparent kinship they feel for one another.

Make no mistake, though, the toughest times are yet to come, for once these seven sisters become one, the next step is to start shuttering church buildings. Some sources indicate that it is likely only two to three will remain open.

Six of these seven churches can claim histories going back 100 to 150 years. The youngster of the group is St. Camillus, which opened in 1959. In each of them, countless weddings, baptisms, confirmations and even funeral Masses have taken place over the course of several generations. That kind of tradition will not be easy to walk away from.

We see this, though, as an opportunity for parishioners to demonstrate to the world what their church and their faith are all about. The diocese is nursing a serious black eye in the wake of the recent grand jury report citing decades of sexual abuse of children perpetrated by some and covered up by others. Nothing can make that right.

However, a demonstration of love, unity, a willingness to work together and a peaceful acceptance of difficult decisions in the name of strengthening the mission to plant and nurture the seeds of faith could go a long way toward redeeming the diocese and what it offers in the eyes of those who now see only its failure.

Step one in this process happens the weekend of Oct. 20-21, when each of the local churches will clear its Mass schedule and instead call worshippers to the New Castle High School auditorium, where vigil Masses are scheduled for 4 and 6 p.m. on the first day, and Masses will take place at 7, 9 and 11 a.m. on the second. We are hopeful the county’s parishioners will embrace this first step on the road to eventual worship as a single body of believers.

The process of change will not be easy. But it might well be reaffirming.

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