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In a much anticipated meeting Dec. 16 with priests of the archdiocese, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley outlined a process for closing dozens of parishes, with the first parish closings coming as early as June. He called on priests to be unified in supporting the reconfiguration process.
It was the first time in over 25 years that all priests in the archdiocese had been summoned to such a meeting with the archbishop. Approximately 600 priests attended.
In his hour-long remarks, Archbishop O’Malley spoke about the funding of recent clergy abuse settlements and same-sex marriage in addition to the “reconfiguration” of the 357 parishes in the archdiocese.
Throughout his talk, the archbishop used the term “reconfiguration” but did not specifically mention parish closings or mergers.
Due to changes in demographics, a shortage of priests, a decrease in regular Mass attendance and the financial difficulties and disrepair of many parishes, a “substantial number of parishes” will have to close, said Archbishop O’Malley.
Many parishes are unable to make payroll or pay health insurance benefits for their employees, the archbishop said. Numerous parishes in the city of Boston are also in need of extensive repair. He told the priests that a recent archdiocesan review of all church properties in Boston found that at least $104 million is needed to repair the buildings.
The archbishop stressed that parish closings would involve more than just financially troubled parishes. However, “special consideration” will be given to parishes serving immigrant communities and parishes with schools.
"Reconfiguration is not about closing the 50 parishes that cannot pay their bills," Archbishop O'Malley explained. "We need to analyze the needs of the Church and keep parishes where there is a need, even when this means subsidizing parishes."
Over the past 18 years, the archdiocese has closed 48 parishes. In the past, criteria for closing a parish included weekly Mass and the number of baptisms, marriages and funeral services taking place in the parish. Archbishop O’Malley said these considerations will be applied during this process of reconfiguration.
The archbishop said “there is no list, there are no numbers” of parishes that will close.
That decision will be the result of a process of consultation from bishops, priests and lay people, he said.
A “central committee” on reconfiguration will be established under Moderator of the Curia and Vicar General Bishop Richard G. Lennon to provide oversight and advice to the archbishop. The committee will be comprised of priests and lay people from each of the five regions of the archdiocese.
In January, the archbishop will send a letter, providing details of the reconfiguration process to members of the archdiocese. In mid-January, bishops and vicars will meet in clusters with priests, parish staffs and lay people to generate suggestions for parish closings in their area.
In late February, the regional bishops will relay their suggestions to Archbishop O’Malley. The following month, the archbishop will announce specific geographic areas in need of reconfiguration. He will then issue a mandate to each group of parishes (for example, three parishes should become two). The archbishop will also give the clusters a deadline by which the recommended solution must be sent to their regional bishop.
Their suggestions will be staggered in order that the parish closing be implemented at different times. The first parish group will report their suggestions by June 1, the second by Aug. 1 and the third by Oct. 1.
The archbishop also announced that, until the reconfiguration process is complete, no new pastors will be named or reappointed, no parish fund-raising campaigns can begin and no construction or renovations to church property will be allowed.
"In my judgment, given the seriousness and scope of what is envisioned it would send conflicting messages not to institute these three directives," said Archbishop O'Malley.
Acknowledging that closing parishes is a “painful undertaking,” the archbishop stated that parishes must be closed for the good of the entire Church in Boston.
"The upside of closing parishes is that the surviving parishes should be stronger, more able to respond to peoples needs, better staffed and with more resources for ministry," he stated.
He placed responsibility on priests to ease the closing process by helping parishioners to see that their individual sacrifice will help the archdiocese grow stronger.
"I know that people are loath to close a beloved parish and parish church, but we must help our parishioners to see that it is because of the needs of our family that we make these painful sacrifices," he said. "Out of these sacrifices can come stronger Catholic parishes better equipped to carry on the work of evangelization, to reach our young people, to serve our shut-ins, and to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, to pass on the faith to future generations."
He asked priests to be strong leaders in their parishes and to work with him to help build a stronger archdiocese.
"I have closed enough parishes in my years as a bishop ... Where pastors explain the reasons for this and give parishioners a sense of hope and excitement over the possibility of forming stronger communities, closures have been very successful," he said. "Unfortunately, we have all seen what can happen when a pastor resists and engages in passive-aggressive behavior that immediately infects the whole parish community with a spirit of despair."
The archbishop called upon priests to support one another, saying, “Priests must take time to come together and to minister to priests.”
"At the Last Supper, the great commandment of love is directed first of all to priests. These are the brothers the Lord has given us," he continued. "We must build priestly fraternity despite our diversity."
The archbishop also explained the sources of loans that will fund the settlement and announced that he is in the process of reconstituting the presbyteral council.
Priests were then give the chance to ask questions and comment on what they had heard.
Two priests assigned to parishes that have recently been merged asked whether their parishes would be subject to reconfiguration. The archbishop answered saying “that will have to be looked at, but there are no initial exemptions.”
Other issues raised were the emphasis on grassroots input involved in the reconfiguration process, the need to develop a sense of community in individual parishes, how to address the issue of same-sex marriage, future meetings with the archbishop and the $15 million loan from the Clergy Retirement Disability Trust.
At a press conference following the gathering, Archbishop O’Malley stressed that parish closings are not a direct result of the cost of the settlements. He did, however, state that parish closings were “accelerated” by these high costs.
A number of priests, who spoke to the media following the meeting, were prepared for news of parish closures.
"Most priests would tell you that there is an ongoing need for reconfiguration," said Father Paul O'Brien, pastor at St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence, where there are currently seven Catholic churches.
Many priests were also encouraged by the archbishop’s call to unity and “priestly fraternity.” Among them was Father Robert Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon and president of the Boston Priests Forum.
"So many priests are living isolated lives in parish rectories," said Father Bullock. "There is a need for priests to minister to each other."