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It is indeed sad to see Catholics occupying church buildings. In Weymouth and Sudbury sit-ins aimed at preventing the archdiocese from closing churches are already taking place. If media reports are correct, parishioners in Charlestown, Newton and Dedham could soon follow suit.
Their reasons for taking this dramatic action? Among their arguments they claim that:
their parishes do not meet the criteria for closure,
self-sufficient parishes should not be suppressed,
the whole process is about seizing property and money.
Those arguments warrant some reflection.
First, there has never been a set criteria to determine which particular parishes should close. There is no mathematical formula that can be applied with an univocal outcome.
Explaining the need to reallocate the scarce resources of the archdiocese to priests last December, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley presented several facts. They included shifting demographics, the declining number of priests, the poor condition of many church buildings, a low sacramental index in many churches and the inability of many parishes to pay their bills. Those factors were put forth to explain the need for the broader reconfiguration but not to explain the decision to close any particular parish.
Factors such as the sacramental index or Mass attendance were not intended to create a rank in each cluster, with the bottom parishes being somehow “culled out.” Other factors such as the size of the church building, the presence of a school in a parish, the distance to neighboring churches were among the other criteria taken into account in the decision making process. The overriding purpose of reconfiguration is to achieve the best possible structure of the local Church in each particular cluster. This will allow the Church in Boston to be better prepared to fulfill its mission in the future as it faces fewer practicing Catholics and available priests.
One factor routinely dismissed by those who claim their parish does not meet the criteria for closure is that, for historical reasons, the archdiocese simply has too many parishes relative to its population of active Catholics.
The second argument — that self-sufficient parishes should not be suppressed — defies basic principles of Christian justice. Had self-sufficiency been the deciding factor in parish closings, inner cities and poor municipalities where many newly arrived immigrants make their home would have had to borne the brunt of the process, even though the presence of the Church is as needed there as in wealthy suburbs. The Church cannot behave as a corporation, shutting down its less profitable “storefronts.” Right thinking Catholics will recognize that, as part of the people of God, each one of us has a particular obligation toward those less fortunate among us.
Lastly, to contend that the entire reconfiguration process is simply an effort of the archdiocese to enrich itself ignores the fact that money raised by selling property will be used to further the mission of the Church, subsidizing poor parishes and schools. The move by some public officials to rezone church property to diminish its value shows a deep lack of understanding of the works of the Church. Beyond the damage they may be inflicting on their own communities by depriving them of potential real estate taxes, their action will also impact the charitable work that the Church performs throughout Eastern Massachusetts. In the end, communities are shortchanging themselves by attempting to prevent the Church from selling property.
We understand the pain that reconfiguration has brought to many parishioners. With the leadership of their pastors, the vast majority are grieving, mourning and moving ahead in their spiritual journey at welcoming parishes throughout the archdiocese. They realize that we do not worship buildings, but instead we worship God wherever we are.
Catholics in Boston need to come together in unity with their bishop. Still reeling from the sexual abuse scandal, the reconfiguration poses a new challenge to Boston Catholics. Yet it also brings the opportunity for a better future for the Church, with more vibrant parishes in which the urgent task of evangelizing can be better carried out. Let us not focus only on ourselves and our personal losses but press ahead for the rebuilding of the Church in Boston.