Parish reconfiguration process to begin

The Archdiocese of Boston moved forward in the process of parish reconfiguration with two back-to-back letters discussing the imminent closings, one addressed to all the faithful of the archdiocese and another to priests.

The first letter, sent Jan. 9 by Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley to all Catholics of the archdiocese, addressed the necessity of beginning the process of reconfiguration immediately. The archbishop laid the groundwork for the parish closures at a Dec. 16 meeting with priests in the archdiocese.

"The reallocation of resources, reconfiguration, is urgently needed and must move from the mode of planning and conversation to that of action and implementation," the archbishop wrote. "Now is the time for decisive action."

The process of downsizing parishes in the archdiocese began under Cardinal Bernard Law. Since 1985, approximately 47 parishes have been closed. In his letter, Archbishop O’Malley said more parish closures are needed to strengthen “the mission of the Church.”

Changing demographics, decreasing Mass attendance, shortages of priests and seminarians, the disrepair of many church buildings and the rising costs of maintaining parishes are the main factors leading to the closures. According to Archbishop O’Malley, the clergy sexual abuse crisis further added to the financial instability felt by many parishes for the past several years or even decades.

The archbishop reiterated that it has not yet been determined which parishes will close. However, the numbers will be “substantial,” he wrote in his letter.

In the past, criteria for closing a parish included weekly Mass attendance and the number of baptisms, marriages and funeral services taking place in the parish. Archbishop O’Malley has said that these criteria will be considered during the current process of reconfiguration.

He asked that bishops, priests and lay leaders at each parish work together to begin the process of considering which parishes will shut their doors. Bishop Richard G. Lennon, vicar general, was appointed to oversee the reconfiguration as chair of the central committee, which will provide oversight of the process and advise the archbishop. The committee will be comprised of priests and lay people from each of the five regions of the archdiocese and several archdiocesan employees.

In addition to receiving input from each of these groups, Archbishop O’Malley stressed that the opinions and feelings of parishioners are essential to ensuring that reconfiguration is “the work of the whole Church.”

"All of these conversations, involving so broad a spectrum of people, will enrich the reconfiguration process and strengthen our archdiocesan effort to rebuild our Church," he wrote.

Keeping the interests of the entire Church in mind, the archbishop said, “it is imperative that all come with an open mind rather than a self-interested plan to save a particular parish.” He recognized that parish closings will be “painful,” but stated that “we must accept the challenge to make great sacrifices to achieve an even greater good.”

"The painful sacrifices of reconfiguration must lead to stronger Catholic parishes better equipped to carry on the work of evangelization, to reach our young people, to serve our senior citizens and our poor, to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and to pass on the faith to future generations," he said in closing.

A letter from Bishop Lennon sent the following day to priests of the archdiocese detailed the process of closings that will soon begin. The consideration process will commence with a meeting between each archdiocesan vicar and the priests in his vicariate. After that meeting takes place and before March 8, parishes will meet in groups, clusters, to answer two questions — if one parish in your cluster were to close, which would it be and if more than one closure is necessary how many parishes could be closed and how would you reconfigure your cluster.

The cluster meetings, Bishop Lennon said, should begin “as soon as possible” and should involve pastors, parish staff members and members of parish pastoral and finance councils.

These parish representatives will be asked to present information regarding their parish’s financial situation, Mass attendance, the number of baptisms, funerals and marriages taking place and the condition of the parish buildings.

Each cluster’s suggestions for reconfiguration must be relayed to its vicar by March 8. The vicars will respond to each group’s suggestions and relay the information to their regional bishops. The regional bishops, in turn, will forward the recommendations along with their own considerations to the archbishop.

In April, after reviewing all of the suggestions and with advice from the central committee, Archbishop O’Malley will inform each group of his decision on how the cluster should be reconfigured. Bishop Lennon said that the archbishop’s conclusions may not always coincide with the clusters’ recommendations.

In his letter, Bishop Lennon urged pastors to keep parishioners up to date on the reconfiguration process by posting notices in their parish bulletins or holding meetings for parishioners. Parish staffs and members of the parish councils should be kept informed of the work of the cluster groups, he said.

"This will be a challenging and demanding task for all of us, as it will be for all the faithful of the archdiocese," wrote Bishop Lennon. "However, united with one another and united around our Archbishop there will be strength and wisdom in our endeavors for the goal of Rebuilding My Church is worth all of our efforts and will be blessed by God as it is the future of His Church we are concerned about in this archdiocesan initiative."