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Disappearing parishes

PARISHIONERS are responding with understandable anger and sadness to Archbishop Sean O'Malley's announcement yesterday that 65 of the 357 parishes in the Boston Archdiocese will close. Although O'Malley tried to put the closures in a spiritual perspective, he sounded at times like a chief executive officer trying to reposition an ailing company.

Demographic shifts, deteriorating buildings, declining attendance at Mass, and, most important, the drop in the number of priests necessitate some parish closings. But the fatalistic approach of church leaders dating back to last January is driving much of the disappointment. Parishioners in many of the affected churches were eager to discuss ways to save their places of worship, such as lifting the workload of priests so they could serve more than one parish and expanding the role of deacons. But the leadership of the archdiocese limited meaningful lay involvement to just one area -- recommendations for closures in their regions.

At times, declining parishes can revive under creative leadership. Many of the parishes targeted for closure deserve a chance to prove their viability. The archdiocese's appeals process, however, does nothing to encourage such rebirths. Leaders of closed parishes can appeal only to Archbishop O'Malley or the Vatican. Yet the vicars, regional bishops, and 24-member central committee that ruminated for months on the closures are the ones with the deepest levels of knowledge. They deserve a place in the appeals process.

There was evidence of compassion in yesterday's announcement. The plan appeared to save many urban and rural parishes that will require subsidies. That development fits with the archbishop's concern for protecting the poor. Efforts were also made to ensure that no community would be left devoid of church life. While parishes in Lincoln, Stow, and Rochester will close, their buildings will remain open for Sunday Mass. At an afternoon press conference, O'Malley, who served as a bishop in the West Indies, spoke of the destruction of churches by Hurricane Hugo and the renewal that took place afterward. But the problems of the Boston Archdiocese do not stem from acts of God. The sexual abuse scandal and the failure of Cardinal Bernard Law to confront the crisis promptly led to last fall's $85 million settlement with more than 500 victims. It is disingenuous for O'Malley to claim that the closures and anticipated property sales are unrelated to that crisis. Technically, the sale of church property in Brighton, including the residences, will cover the abuse claims. But the proceeds could have been used to shore up struggling parishes if Law and other church leaders had acted responsibly.

These additional resources would have given church leaders more time to focus on an important reason for the closing: the decline in the number of priests, evidenced in the fact that a class of only seven men was ordained last week. This is a sad contrast to the 30 or 40 men who were ordained each year in Boston during the 1950s and '60s.

People concerned about the future of the church should work to expand the number of priests. In the meantime, those who have ideas to keep their parishes open, perhaps with greater lay involvement, ought to get a full and sympathetic hearing.

Parish life is a lattice of faith, study, family, and friendship supporting individuals and neighborhoods. Parish closures rip apart that support and should be held to a minimum. 

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