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Is The Catholic Church Dying? Bishop Zubik Hopes Plan Will Bring Diocese Alive

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- If you think Catholicism is dying, the Saturday Night Festival of Praise at St. Albert the Great in Baldwin might make you think twice.

It's a raucous, hand-waving affair that doesn't even look Catholic at all.

"Anyone who thinks the church is dead, I invite you to the Diocese of Pittsburgh," Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese Bishop David Zubik told the crowd.

It's a gathering that's risen from the ashes.

St. Albert's is now part of a new regional parish called Holy Apostles, a consolidation of four struggling South Hill parishes dying from shrinking attendance. The event is a way for everyone to get to know each other.

"What we're trying to do in all of this is to light the fire again of faith, and it seems to me that one of the ways we can do that is bringing people together in a much closer relationship," said Bishop Zubik.

Under Bishop Zubik, the entire Diocese will undergo a reorganization of similar parish consolidations. Call it a radical surgical procedure, there will be bloodletting, churches will close, schools will be shuttered, but the bishop says in the end it will save the patient.

"I'm saying it's going to be life giving," Bishop Zubik said. "It's not going to be easy, but I think it's going to be life giving."

While more than 600,000 people in the Diocese identify as Catholic, the vast majority no longer practice their faith. Since 2000, Mass attendance is down by more than 40 percent, as are Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations and Holy Matrimony.

Nowhere is the decline more apparent than in the Catholic schools where decimated enrollments are already forcing mergers at a rapid pace.

This past spring, St. Teresa of Avila closed its doors and joined with its former rival, St. Sebastian's, to create a new school called Holy Cross Academy.

"We want to take St. Teresa's, the Titans, and the St. Sebastian Knights, and build on them to create the Holy Cross Academy Hawks," said John Benzing, the principal.

The hope is that combining the two schools will create a new energy, a new vibrancy under one roof, and, so far, it seems to be paying off.

"People are going to see how well we're thriving and they're going to want to send their kids to a school where they can learn about God and learn just about how Catholics live," said student Bridget Lucas.

Holy Cross now has more students and more resources than either of the former schools, and the kids say they have more friends.

Benzing says this merger will be the model going forward.

"There will be fewer schools, but we're stronger. We are pooling our resources, we are collaborating amongst the schools to share ideas," he says.

In a similar vein, the new consolidated parishes will also have more resources for musical directors, youth ministers and chaplains to visit hospitals and shut-ins.

The bishop wants to engage in social outreach to make strong connections in the community, and eventually, he says those lapsed Catholics will come back.

"Sure, when change happens people get ticked. But, I believe an awful lot of those people when they start to see the life that's happening will say, 'Maybe what I did was a precipitous decision and I can come back,'" Bishop Zubik said.

They'll come back, he says, to fill an empty void in their lives.

In an age when our kids communicate only by text, and what passes for dialogue is attacking each other on Facebook, Bishop Zubik says we need to re-establish personal connections with each other and with God.

"I believe it. I'm putting my life on the line for it. I mean that sincerely. I believe it's going to work," he said.

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