Parish-Closing Struggles Continue in Boston

BOSTON — Difficult times continue in the Archdiocese of Boston. Its effort to reconfigure the alignment of priests and parishes to better serve the needs of all Catholics in the area has been met with resistance in some corners and resignation in others. Angry laypeople in a handful of parishes have staged around-the-clock vigils. One parishioner who refused to leave his church was arrested for trespassing, though the archdiocese declined to press charges.

And Archbishop Sean O'Malley in mid-November put the properties of 16 closed parishes up for sale.

Archbishop O'Malley also issued a public letter to more clearly explain the necessity of closing 83 of 357 parishes. The letter, which was read at Masses the weekend of Nov. 14, revealed that the financial situation of the archdiocese is much worse than many people thought.

The archbishop, a Capuchin Franciscan who early in his tenure declined to live in the archbishop's mansion, urged Catholics to remember the sacrifices made by the early Church, their own ancestors and more recent immigrants, and called on Catholics to make the needed sacrifices to benefit their descendents.

“The human and material resources that we took for granted are no longer there,” he wrote. “The only way to avoid a catastrophic debacle is for us to downsize.”

He appealed to Catholics: “I know that we all have a great love for our parish and parish church, but our first love must be for Christ and the Body of Christ which is the Church.”

In response to angry parishioners who view their parishes as “viable,” he wrote: “Viability must be seen not at the parish level but at the level of the whole archdiocese. The viability of the Church's mission is at stake.”

Though he did mention the priest shortage as being a factor in the closures, perhaps the most stunning revelations concerned finances. The archdiocese is faced with a $10-million annual deficit and an unfunded pension liability of $80 million, he said. The abuse settlements are not the cause of the financial woes, according to his letter. Those were largely paid for by sale of Church property and by insurance. Rather, he referred to a 50% decline in annual income due to fallout from the scandal and stock-market troubles as major causes of the current fiscal situation.

The archbishop also described the toll the crisis is taking on him. “Closing parishes is the hardest thing I have ever had to do in 40 years of religious life. I joined the monastery knowing that I would have to do difficult things for the rest of my life, but I never imagined I would have to be involved in anything so painful or so personally repulsive to me as this.

“At times, I ask God to call me home and let someone else finish the job,” he said.

Public response varied. Stephen Pope, a theology professor at Boston College, was quoted in The Boston Globe as saying, “This is the best thing he's said — it's clear, it communicates his own anguish in a persuasive way, and he really pushes us hard to see the universality of the Church, and that sometimes individual parishes have to make sacrifices for the sake of the whole, which is the way the New Testament sees the Church.”

The letter was not received as well in other quarters. Bill Bannon, a spokesman for parishioners at St. Anselm's parish in Sudbury who are conducting a vigil, said he could empathize with the archbishop, but he was not mollified. He criticized what he termed “the mismanagement” of archdiocesan finances and said, “They're closing us because of actions or lack of actions on the part of the bishops. They need money.”

A statement released by the Council of Parishes, an alliance of parishes that have been closed or are slated to close, said, “Today's statement reflects many years of mismanagement. The Archbishop is asking for more sacrifices to atone for this mismanagement.”

The group recommended a moratorium on the church-closing process for at least six months. The archdiocese announced Nov. 11 that six parishes had been granted extensions of their closing dates and another 12 were offered extensions. None were parishes where vigils have been held, however.

Peter Borre, co-chairman of the Council of Parishes, said, “I have spoken directly to some of those parishes' representatives, and without naming names, in one case with a pretty lengthy extension, this is good news for the parishioners. In other cases, I think there is anything between skepticism and caution. This, to my mind, is piecemeal, put forward very late in the process, and I see this as an attempt by the archdiocese to stave off something they really fear, namely more vigils. Our recommendation is for a moratorium on this entire process until the middle of next year.”

Phil Lawler, publisher of Catholic World Report, described the situation outlined in Archbishop O'Malley's letter as “just horribly sad to the point of being frightening.”

“This is a horrible situation that has been building up for decades,” said Lawler, former editor of The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper, and a resident of South Lancaster, Mass.

Asked to comment on the genesis of the problems, Lawler said, “The overwhelming cause is: Catholics don't go to church in Boston. They aren't passing the faith on to their children. They aren't sending their sons to seminary. … They aren't contributing, so there isn't any money.”

Archbishop O'Malley closed his letter with a plea for unity. “I pray that the unity Christ desired as the hallmark of his followers be ours. Only in unity can the Church's mission flourish.”

John Moorehouse is the editor of Catholic Men's Quarterly (www. houseonthemoor.com). He writes from western Massachusetts.

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