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Collaboration between Catholic parishes is a "messy" process requiring spiritual maturity and unwavering commitment.

But it is a necessary process if the Catholic Church is to accomplish its mission -- spreading the word of Jesus -- with fewer priests and religious to oversee that work, according to Brother Loughlan Sofield.

An authority on "collaboration," the institutional term for "working together," Brother Sofield addressed 225 leaders from about 50 parishes during a conference on "Pursuing New Visions" Wednesday at Christ the King Seminary, East Aurora.

His message was that collaboration is a painful process, involving conflict and change. It requires leading by example, letting go of control and helping others discover and use their gifts.

A member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, Brother Sofield has written numerous articles and books on collaboration and is senior editor of Human Development magazine.

Brother Sofield presented the parish leaders with a list of "beliefs" about getting parishes to collaborate. What is involved, he suggested, is a lot of discomfort.

Collaboration is the issue of the 1990s in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo because it is in the midst of a study to determine how its 271 parishes will function five years from now with 65 fewer priests.

The obvious solution, already implemented in a few situations, is that some parishes will have to share priests and work together on such things as ministry to youth and senior citizens, religious education and sacramental preparation. Even parishes that will continue to be served by one or more priests are being encouraged to share programs, personnel and resources.

"It is extremely important that parishes work together to bring the good news to all of God's people," Bishop Edward D. Head told the gathering.

To achieve inter-parish cooperation, Brother Sofield said, the leaders of the effort must have a clear understanding of what they expect to achieve. They must be convinced that "this is what we are called to do as church -- to grow -- and to be effective."

In addition, he said, the leaders must be committed to collaboration because "they are going to have to deal with anger, hostility and conflict," and they must be capable of working together.

Capable, he explained, means being able to relate to God in a spiritually mature way.

"If people are doing it because of their commitment to God, it might bring about a nice cooperative venture, but it won't bring about the mission of the church," he said.

Brother Sofield warned that the Catholic Church is at a point when its leaders must make a choice between mission -- reaching out to serve others -- and maintenance -- mere survival.

The tendency today in the church in the United States, he said, is to be "too concerned with its own people and problems" rather than with the problems of those "outside itself."

"The institutional church is too concerned with returning to what it was instead of being what it can be," he said.

Bishop Head said there are indications that many Catholics in the diocese already realize that collaboration can be painful, challenging and messy.

"Our people are growing in awareness of how this New Visions process is going to impact on all of us," he said. "It makes my morning mail very interesting."

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