It came in a thin, white Federal Express envelope — Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley’s answer to the question that Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston have been asking for weeks: “Will my parish remain open or will it be closed?”
As those overnight letters arrived on the morning of May 25, clergy and parishioners at 70 of the archdiocese’s 357 parishes faced the grim reality that their parish would be suppressed in the coming months.
The archbishop has also decided that five new parishes will be formed from suppressed parishes and five other church buildings will remain open as “worship sites” maintained by nearby parishes, resulting in a net loss of 60 churches in the archdiocese.
At a press conference later that day, Archbishop O’Malley appealed to Catholics to remain unified despite the loss and to look beyond parish boundaries and understand that the changes are necessary for the archdiocese.
"We may think of ourselves as liberal Catholics, as Latin Mass Catholics, Irish Catholics, Italian Catholics, Lithuanian Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, French Catholics, Vietnamese Catholics, Haitian Catholics, Cape Verdean Catholics, the Voice of the Faithful or the Silent Majority. We need to put the accent on Catholic and come together as one people ready to make sacrifices for our Church," he said.
"My hope is that the major step we are taking together today will set us on firm ground so that we can focus our attention once more on our primary mission to preach the truth of our Catholic faith in both word and in deed," the archbishop continued.
Archbishop O’Malley explained, as he has throughout the reconfiguration process, that the need for the parish closings was brought about by demographic changes, the growing shortage of priests and the mounting cost of maintaining aging buildings.
According to Archbishop O’Malley, 130 of Boston’s pastors are over 70 years of age and one-third of all parishes are “operating in the red.” In addition , he said, in the city of Boston alone parishes are in need of approximately $100 million in repairs.
"The alternative to going through this exercise would be that we would experience a continual decline in some areas of our archdiocese, closing parish after parish, school after school, out-reach program after out-reach program, all because the archdiocese would be unable to subsidize these entities," the archbishop said.
Though the process of reducing the number of parishes has been ongoing for years — the archdiocese has suppressed 55 since 1985 — the need to accelerate the process is widely seen to have been precipitated by the drop in donations and Mass attendance in the aftermath of the clergy sexual scandal.
Yet, in his remarks, the archbishop stressed that the parish closures are unrelated to last year’s multi-million dollar clergy abuse settlement.
"The decision to close parishes is in no way connected with the need to finance the legal settlement with the victims of clergy sexual abuse," he said. "The sale of the Brighton property of the former archbishop's residences and surrounding land has raised the $90 million dollars needed to do so." Instead, the archbishop said, proceeds from the sale of closed parishes will be used to support remaining parishes as well as prop up the funds that provide health and pension benefits to archdiocesan employees.
"This process of reconfigura-tion is directed not towards the past, but towards the future mission of the Church," Archbishop O'Malley said.
One hundred and forty-seven parishes had been recommended for closure at some point in the reconfiguration process, and there had been speculation that as many as 90 parishes would ultimately need to be closed.
But responding to a reporter’s question, the archbishop also expressed his belief that no similar wave of closures would be required in the near future.
"We hope this is it for a long while ... that is why we decided to carry on with a process that is this radical, hoping that from here on we'll be able to plan, knowing what sites we have, and to make sure the entire archdiocese is covered with the pastoral care that it needs."
At the same time, the archbishop said, he is “committed to aggressively promoting vocations” in response the shortage of priests.
He called on all Catholics to recognize their responsibility to encourage those who may be called to the priesthood, noting that, “If every parish sent one young man to the seminary every 10 years, we’d have more than enough vocations.”
The archbishop went on to praise those who dedicated time and energy to the reconfiguration effort, especially Moderator of the Curia Bishop Richard G. Lennon who oversaw the process from its inception, saying, “[Bishop Lennon] has put in untold hours over the past few months to make this reconfiguration possible. That the reconfiguration process worked so well is largely due to him, and we are all very grateful.”
The reconfiguration announcement brings to a close the process that began last January when groups of local parishes known as clusters were asked to suggest which parishes among them should be closed if the archbishop felt it was necessary. In early March, each cluster’s findings were submitted to their vicar forane and then to the regional bishop of the area, each of whom added his own recommendations.
At the end of that month, the recommendations were in the hands of the Central Committee on Reconfiguration — a 24-member body made up of lay people, clergy and religious from the five regions of the archdiocese. In formulating their own findings, the committee took into account the parishes’ original recommendations, the assessments made by each cluster’s vicar and regional bishop as well as the circumstances of neighboring clusters.
One month later, a summary of all the various recommendations for each cluster was submitted to Archbishop O’Malley who formulated his initial decision on parish closings. Then, as required by Church law, earlier this month Archbishop O’Malley presented his initial decisions to the Presbyteral Council of the archdiocese to hear their counsel. Those consultations concluded May 11, and the archbishop’s final decision was sent to each pastor via overnight letter May 24.
The timeframe for parish closures was not released with the announcement, although within the next week each parish is expected to be assigned a time period of two, four or six months to complete the process of closing — depending on the circumstances of the individual parish, according archdiocesan spokesman Father Christopher Coyne.
Also in the coming week remaining parishes will be notified of their new territories and the parish populations they will be absorbing.
Priests whose parishes are to be closed were scheduled to meet May 27 at St. Julia Parish in Weston for mutual support and to receive further instructions on how to begin the process of shutting their parishes.