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Spotlight Report

O'Malley seeks advice on closings

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/13/2004

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley is giving Catholic churches in Boston eight weeks to decide which among them should be closed.

The Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, who has vowed a sweeping and speedy consolidation of the archdiocese's 357 parishes, is setting a March 8 deadline for leaders of approximately 80 geographic clusters of churches to recommend which of their local parishes should shut down.

Each cluster -- a group of three to eight parishes -- must recommend at least one church for closing. That means O'Malley will be given a list of about 80 possible parish closings. But archdiocesan spokesman the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne said O'Malley will not necessarily close that many churches; instead, he will use the recommendations as advice. O'Malley plans to announce in April the total number of parishes that must be closed. The decisions about which parishes will be shut down will be made over the year.

"This will be a challenging and demanding task for all of us, as it will be for all the faithful of the archdiocese," Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who has been designated by O'Malley to oversee the consolidation planning process, wrote in a letter to priests dated Saturday and received in parishes yesterday. "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."

The Archdiocese of Boston, which claims two million adherents, is by far the largest religious institution in eastern Massachusetts, but is suffering from a dwindling number of priests, a decline in Mass attendance, and numerous aging buildings that are costly to repair and maintain. O'Malley's predecessors, Cardinal Bernard F. Law and Lennon, who served as administrator of the archdiocese upon Law's resignation, had already trimmed the number of parishes in the archdiocese from 404 in 1985 to 357 today.

But O'Malley, who was installed as archbishop last July 30, faces a financial crunch exacerbated by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, which led to a decline in donations and an $85 million settlement with victims. O'Malley, in his own letter to parishioners last week, argued that closing parishes will lead to a stronger archdiocese with more vibrant parishes.

In the latest communication from the archdiocese, Lennon said he has instructed the 22 archdiocesan vicars -- pastors who assist regional bishops in administration -- to meet "as soon as possible" with priests to start the process of recommending closings.

Lennon said each cluster should answer, by the March 8 deadline, two questions: "If the archbishop needs to close a parish in your cluster for the greater good of the archdiocese, how would you recommend that your cluster of parishes be reconfigured and why" and "if the archbishop needs to close more than one parish in your cluster, how many parishes would you recommend for closure and how would you recommend that your cluster be reconfigured and why?"

He said the parish closing recommendations made by leaders of each cluster will be reviewed by the vicars and then forwarded to the five regional bishops, who will then forward them to Lennon, who will forward them to O'Malley. He said O'Malley will review the cluster responses along with the comments from the vicars and the regional bishops and then, in April, will "issue mandates to parishes in a town or city or in a cluster for specific reconfiguration action." He said the mandates may or may not reflect the advice of the clusters and other officials.

Critics, including leaders of Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization, have questioned the archdiocese's commitment to true involvement of lay people in the decision-making process, which is much faster than previous rounds of parish closings. Lennon addressed that in his letter.

"Some have said that this process may be too quick; however, others have suggested that the archbishop should just name the parishes to close and let's get on with it," Lennon said. "What the archbishop desires is to address the issue in a way that offers opportunity for input from parishes and clusters and at the same time to realize an outcome in a timely fashion so that we, as the church of Boston, may begin to move forward revitalized and energized."

Lennon said the cluster meetings should include pastors, parish staffers, and members of the parish pastoral and finance councils, which are lay organizations within the parishes. He said that at the meetings, parishes should fully disclose data about finances, Mass attendance, sacramental activity, and building condition, and attached a disclosure form for parishes to bring to the meetings.

Lennon called for the groups to pray. He also called for "communication and opportunity for discussion at the parish level," including notices in parish bulletins, updates to church staff and council members who do not take part in cluster conversations, and optional parish meetings.

"It is imperative that all parishes be involved in the conversations that are asked for so that the best possible information and responses may be forthcoming, for only then will the archbishop be prepared to offer mandates in the spring which will, when fulfilled, bring forth a configuration of our parishes which will respond to the needs of all the faithful and will be better able to carry out the mission of the church," Lennon wrote.

The president of the Boston Priests Forum, the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, welcomed Lennon's letter as the first step in a process that he said will be "very difficult, but absolutely necessary."

"I am happy about the involvement of the local community at the very beginning -- I think that's helpful, and it underscores what the archbishop and others have been saying: There is no list, no preordained system, and the results are going to come from our own reflection on our pastoral needs," said Bullock, who is also the pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows church in Sharon. "That's very good for our clusters in our towns to determine how best to use our resources."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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