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A Mass on the Common

MEMBERS OF Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group, were dispirited to see some parishioners rejoicing while others wept in response to the announcement in May of parish closures by the Archdiocese of Boston. To heal potential rifts and express fellowship with the soon-to-be-closed parishes, the independent group is organizing what it says will be a historic Sunday Mass on Boston Common.

Voice of the Faithful provided an emotional sanctuary for Catholics trying to cope with the depth of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Now the group is pressing for transparency and accountability regarding plans to close 65 parishes by year's end. Archdiocese officials have banned some Voice of the Faithful chapters from meeting on church property. But there are signs that the group and its supporters are only growing stronger.

Sharon Harrington, a lawyer and parishioner at St. Albert the Great Church in Weymouth, says the parish council is prepared to seek a court injunction to halt the closure, possibly on grounds of unjust enrichment from the sale of parish property. Other members of Voice of the Faithful say that targeted parishes -- especially debt-free, vibrant ones -- are examining restrictions on deeds, landmark status, and conditions placed on charitable gifts to gain a reprieve. Concerned by secrecy surrounding clergy sexual abuse, Voice of the Faithful is also seeking information on who will determine how the proceeds from the sale of parish assets will be distributed.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, says he does not anticipate a rash of appeals or civil actions -- that most parishes understand the rationale for the closures.

Anxiety is not limited to the parishes. In March the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority -- the city's chief planning agency -- urged the archdiocese to work with the city on a master plan to lessen the impact of the church closures. But the archdiocese has shown little interest in such a process, according to a BRA spokeswoman.

No one, including Voice of the Faithful, argues against the need to close some of the archdiocese's 357 parishes based on demographic shifts, deteriorating buildings, declining enrollment, and a shortage of priests. But creative solutions were lost in the inflexible process used to identify surplus parishes. It might be possible, for example, to sell rectories but save churches. Such a goal could be accomplished by using lay people to unburden priests of common chores, thereby allowing them to serve more than one church. But first, says Steven Krueger,executive director of Voice of the Faithful, the archdiocese must shift its focus from property to people.

The Voice of the Faithful Mass planned for Sunday is a reminder that the fight against spiritual impoverishment takes place on many fronts. 

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