After Four Decades, He’s Planning to Retire
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
January 18, 2018
ROCKFORD—After almost four decades of service to the Diocese of Rockford, Michael Cieslak, Ed.D., diocesan director of Research and Planning, is set to retire on June 1.
He served in religious education at Our Lady of Good Counsel, Aurora, for a year and at St. Patrick Parish, Rochelle, from 1974 to 1981, then earned a doctorate in Research and Evaluation from Northern Illinois University. He was hired in 1984 by Bishop Arthur J. O’Neill to help with plans to strengthen the effectiveness of diocesan administration and ministries.
Since then, he researches for projects that deal with strategic planning, evaluation, the establishment and construction of new parishes and facilities, and personnel assignments. He has served as a resource person for many in the diocesan Church.
As a person who has both an extroverted and an introverted side, Dr. Cieslak was happy to discover that the work of the new office would be a good fit for both of those characteristics. 
On the analytical side, he is most pleased with parish profiles and a parish-priest database that he has developed. 
The parish profiles, he says, “to my knowledge are not duplicated in any diocese in the U.S. due to some unique analyses.” Those ongoing “snapshots” of each parish have been well-used by several offices over the years, providing, for example, financial and population information using research tools he developed. 
The parish-priest database makes use of existing information that was not easily accessible. A lot of meticulous work resulted in a database for diocesan personnel to research priest assignments throughout diocesan history, both by individual priests and by parishes.
On his extroverted side, Dr. Cieslak is pleased that 95 percent of parishes report that Ministry Day, begun in 2005, is worth their time. It has evolved from a pastor and staff communication day into a session focused upon the larger issue of parish vitality, mission, and discipleship to “lead people to embrace a deeper faith,” he says. 
He also is happy with his contributions as executive secretary of the Diocesan Pastoral Council since it was formed in 1995. A recommendation from the DPC led, for example, to the development of Ministry Day.
Throughout these 34 years, Dr. Cieslak has seen numerous changes in the diocese. Two positive trends that he celebrates are the many parishes that are inviting parishioners to a deeper discipleship and the many Catholic schools that are providing opportunities for both retreats and for service to the poor, better integrating faith into the lives of their students.
But some of the most dramatic (and statistical) changes in the diocese are found in the areas of Catholic population and Mass attendance. Both have been impacted from forces within and outside the Church.
The Catholic population in the 11 counties of the diocese (determined using the percentage of all infants born who receive Catholic baptism and the percentage of people who die and have a Catholic funeral) peaked in 2008 at 394,000, Dr. Cieslak says. It is now 348,000, affected in part by the overall loss of residents in the State of Illinois. There also is concern that fewer families now are baptizing their children during their first year of life.
Mass attendance is determined by counts taken at Masses on two October weekends each year at every parish. Dr. Cieslak’s office initiated those counts in 1990. 
The year 2001 was the high point for attendance, in part because the count was taken one month after the September 11 attacks. But the population in general had been growing at that time, he says, and Mass attendance had been increasing in a “nice, stair-step” way.
“Especially in the 1990s, demographic and ecclesial ‘arrows’ were pointing up,” Dr. Cieslak says. “It was quite thrilling. We were exploding in growth, building new parishes (and) income was up ... it was a time of plenty, relatively speaking, with many good things all around.”
Then, in 2002, the priest sexual abuse issue was emphasized in print and electronic media. The decline in Mass attendance started at that time, he says. Overall Mass attendance is down, decreasing in 14 of the 16 years since 2001. The total drop over those 16 years is 21.3 percent. Statistics also showed that, even as Mass attendance was falling off, parish contributions kept increasing before finally leveling off several years ago.
The population of native Spanish-speaking Catholics has had a significant impact in Mass attendance, so Mass count reports have evolved.
“In the olden days, we would just count and report,” Dr. Cieslak says, “but now we produce a more sophisticated report by Mass time and by language (which) allows for more useful analyses.”
Parish profiles now show how filled each church is at Spanish-language and at English Masses. Overall, the 2017 Mass Count notes that “there are now 26,355 people attending Mass in Spanish in the diocese, representing 29.3 percent of all parish Mass attendees,” and that over the past decade, the population in parishes without a Spanish Mass declined by 26.1 percent; parishes with a low Hispanic presence declined 15.9 percent; but those where more than half of all attendees are at Spanish Masses grew by 19.6 percent. 
Looking ahead, Dr. Cieslak has offered to work one day a week after he retires to help with the transition of the Research and Planning Office to a new director. His retirement plans also include continued training and competition with Abby, his agility-award-winning English Cocker Spaniel. He plans to continue to be involved in the Patient-Family Advisory Council at SwedishAmerican Hospital and to pick up again his long-loved hobby of photography.
But most of all, he is looking forward to “having a good time with Kate,” his wife of 44 years.
“I hope anything I did that’s good and useful will continue,” Dr. Cieslak says, “and that the next person will make progress in areas I haven’t been able to address.”