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A lifeline for the church

IT WAS a year ago this week that a fleet of FedEx trucks delivered the devastating news to thousands of faithful Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston -- their churches were slated to be closed. Over the past year the destructive track of downsizing has created immeasurable pain in the lives of countless Catholics and their communities. Few have gone unscathed, including Archbishop Sean O'Malley himself. We have every reason to believe this history will repeat itself if the archdiocese does not change its course.

The former flagship of the Catholic Church in America, the Boston Archdiocese, continues to sink. Already facing a slow but gradual long-term decline, the archdiocese needed to embark on a course of hope and healing after being stricken with the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The settlements in December 2003 provided that opportunity. Regrettably, a flawed top-down reconfiguration process has put us into a steeper downward spiral and refractured an already broken trust.

There is cause for alarm that goes beyond declining Mass attendance, a priest shortage, budget and program cuts, and other objective measures. At a time when creative and vibrant solutions are needed, the archdiocese is stuck in the same old ways -- diminishing hope and alienating those it needs most for its survival and growth, the faithful parishioners. The mission of the church is the ultimate casualty.

The reconfiguration process was doomed from the start -- a Catholic ''Survivor" scenario with unclear objectives, inconsistent criteria, and a timetable that has never been justified. Months later unfunded pension liabilities were disclosed. Then, recently it was alleged that the archdiocese diverted donor-designated contributions. These have only further eroded archdiocesan credibility. Additionally, it is astounding that the archdiocese claims it is committed to financial transparency while not disclosing the financial statements of its primary corporation -- the Corporation Sole -- or the other 20-plus corporations under its stewardship. Archbishop O'Malley has asked people to make a shared sacrifice without asking them to be informed stewards of a shared responsibility. This approach doesn't work in today's world or today's church.

The end is not in sight, with more legal actions by parishioners, potential investigations by the attorney general, more parish closings and vigils, the pending legislation calling for church financial disclosure, and another round of settlements for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

The Boston Archdiocese must look to the one and only solution at its doorstep, literally: the people in the pews. As one anguished parishioner said, ''If they needed our help, why didn't they ask us?"

Among the pain, fear, and anger, there are signs of hope. We are witnessing something extraordinary -- people taking responsibility for their faith lives and communities through historic round-the-clock vigils in eight churches. For many this has been an unexpected step away from the ''pray, pay, and obey" culture of Catholicism. If you ask them however, they will tell you that they are taking responsibility for their church, which they see as having lost its way. We are witnessing a historic and hopeful trend -- part of a larger movement that spawned the Voice of the Faithful and now the growing Council of Parishes.

Today we are at a crossroads and there are two clear paths, one that repeats the mistakes of the past and one that learns from them. The former relies on the secrecy and heavy-handed control of the hierarchy that alienates Catholics in an educated society. The latter is the needed course for healing and growth and would embrace the responsibility that lay Catholics are demonstrating for their and the church's future. The gulf between them is a growing lack of trust. The bridge between them can be a dialogue for understanding and unity based in the gospel message of Christ.

The shared sacrifice that Archbishop O'Malley asks for starts with creating an environment for shared responsibility. Here are three recommendations.

First, provide complete financial disclosure for all entities of the archdiocese.

Second, work with the laity, clergy, and religious to bring Catholics together -- soon. If we are going to move forward together, we must first come together.

Third, develop not only a financial but also a pastoral workout plan that involves all Catholics and rebuilds trust so that the faithful will once again invest themselves spiritually and financially in the church.

The archdiocese can be turned around because that is what Catholics want. However, they need to be included as part of the solution.

Steven Krueger was the founding executive director of Voice of the Faithful and a member of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council.

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