Since taking over five years ago, Archbishop Allen Vigneron, seen Sunday at Mass, has led the archdiocese to eliminate its deficit, posting gains above $1 million in the last three fiscal years, diocese officials said. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)
In the five years since Archbishop Allen Vigneron began leading the Archdiocese of Detroit, the southeast Michigan native has faced a number of challenges: a rocky economy, fewer priests, and shifting cultural values affecting interest in church attendance.
Today, despite the difficulties and tasks ahead for the nation’s sixth-largest archdiocese, Vigneron believes his region of an estimated 1.3 million Catholics is headed toward a stronger position — and he credits his own leader for that.
“God has smiled on me,” the 65-year-old told The Detroit News. “God has sustained me … in facing the challenges that have come to me as a leader, and He has brought great good out of my efforts and results far beyond what would come from my own resources.”
Vigneron marked the fifth anniversary of succeeding Cardinal Adam Maida as the archdiocese’s head on Tuesday. His tenure has included major initiatives to stabilize finances, reshape parishes as well as address issues such as a shrinking pool of priests while reinforcing the church’s core missions.
Those moves have heartened the faithful in the fold.
“My sense is that he’s worked hard to get the archdiocese back on some solid footing, and he’s striving to bring parishes and Catholic education back to life,” said John Carry, who attends St. Anastasia in Troy. “I think he’s proven himself to be quite an administrator.”
Vigneron’s term has also been marked by the arrival of Pope Francis, who has inspired praise calling for Catholic leaders to shift focus from divisive social issues as well as advocating a “new evangelization.”
“He seems to have a very particular gift for saying the Christian truth in a way that engages people — people who thought they had heard it all,” Vigneron said. “He has a way of sparking new interest, and I find that very encouraging.”
The pope’s push for helping others worldwide, he added, “does give a sense of hope. ... It gives you a second burst of energy.”
Bolstering local parishes
The archbishop demonstrated his leadership skills soon after arriving from his previous post as bishop at the Diocese of Oakland, Calif.
Within eight months of taking the helm, he announced the archdiocese’s central operations faced a $14 million net annual deficit, which required selling buildings and other assets, restructuring debt and trimming a third of its headquarters’ workforce. The deficit was eliminated by the 2010-11 fiscal year, the overall budget has been balanced since then and gains above $1 million were posted in the last three fiscal years, diocese officials said.
Vigneron also turned to bolstering the parishes, the finances for which are separate from archdiocese operations. He started the second phase of “Together In Faith,” a pastoral planning process implemented from 2003-06 to address less money; a dropoff in the number of active priests, which in 2013 was some 19 percent fewer than a decade earlier; and a years-long decline in Mass attendance.
Using parishioner input, the plan outlined how parishes would streamline ministries or close, combine or cluster. Since restructuring started in 2012, the number of parishes has dropped from 267 to 237, according to the archdiocese.
Also aimed at future guidance is a recent “Survey of the Faithful,” for which some 70,000 Catholics answered questions on everything from outreach to lay leadership. Responses are expected to be revealed this year, officials said.
The conditions within the archdiocese, Vigneron said, were not unlike Detroit’s Big Three or other local institutions adapting in tough times. “It shows people that it just has to be done,” he said.
Observers say his work reflected a need to adjust. “There are fewer priests to minister to Catholics in the archdiocese, and the demographics of the city and suburbs have changed dramatically in just the last 10 years,” said David Nantais, an adjunct instructor in the Philosophy and Religious Studies departments at University of Detroit Mercy.
“Vigneron has been a bit more creative in his efforts to scale down the number of parishes — by encouraging mergers between two or more churches and by taking a wider view of the archdiocese to see what will best serve the faithful, rather than just focusing on closing shop in the city of Detroit.”
In 2011, Vigneron launched the Changing Lives Together capital initiative aimed at boosting regional parishes, schools, priests and lay leaders. The campaign’s goal is to raise $135 million. Each parish in its six-county region has a benchmark to reach. Of that, 70 percent stays with the parish and the rest is earmarked for tuition help at Catholic schools and training priests and other ministers; as well as building a fund to aid the church in Detroit, officials said.
The campaign has garnered some $110 million in pledges, which is funneled toward individual projects at the participating parishes, the archdiocese said.
Some painful changes
Not everyone has been supportive of the measures in recent years.
Carol Boulanger of Troy said she and others felt their thoughts on parishes’ needs were overlooked, while some questioned contributing more money to an effort for which they desired more details.
“I’ve seen too many people hurt by all of this,” she said, adding she hoped for greater transparency and for Vigneron to interact with parishioners more to gain their opinions.
“I would never support it being done this way again.”
While many parishioners were pained to lose sites where they long had worshipped, some accepted that as necessary for helping stabilize the archdiocese.
“It’s heartbreaking, but they’re changes that have to be made, as much as they hurt us,” said Mary Theisen, a longtime Catholic who works part time at two churches in Oakland County.
Vigneron also is chairman of the director’s board for the Michigan Catholic Conference, the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church statewide. The group is opposed to the Affordable Care Act’s mandated contraception coverage in health insurance policies.
Stressing church teaching
As the public debate for gay rights continues, and a judge this month is set to rule on Michigan’s gay marriage ban, Vigneron said Catholics should remember church teaching on the matter.
“The archbishop is not shy about discussing the importance of natural marriage in the face of rather aggressive efforts to redefine the institution,” said Paul Long, president and CEO of the Michigan Catholic Conference. “At the same time, he is clear in his direction that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their classification.”
But some in the region seek a broader view.
Joe Thilman, a Catholic board member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Detroit, has spent years helping present to parishes a panel the group developed, “Putting a Human Face on Homosexuality.” Archdiocese officials have not officially supported the effort, Thilman said, which does not intend to discuss theology.
Since Scripture can have multiple interpretations, and more Catholics appear to accept LGBT people, he said, “we need to include people such as gays and lesbians instead of making them feel excluded. I don’t think that’s Jesus’ message.”