Vatican tribunal hands loss to 8 local groups on closings

By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / June 11, 2008

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A high-level Vatican tribunal has dealt yet another blow to Boston-area Catholics protesting parish closings, declining to hear appeals from eight groups of parishioners who are attempting to force reopenings of local parish churches.

The Apostolic Signatura declared, in dense Latin documents mailed to lay worshipers who do not speak that long-dead language, that the challenges to the closings are "clearly lacking any basis."

The dismissal came from a subset of the bishops and cardinals who sit on the tribunal; the local parishioners, meeting over the weekend, all decided to appeal to the full tribunal for reconsideration. They acknowledged that the appeal for reconsideration has little chance of success, but said they would continue to pursue any recourse afforded them under the church's canon law, including trying to block Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley from designating the parish buildings suitable for "profane use," which is how the church describes secular uses of church buildings.

"While the prospects are dim, we're going to continue to stand up and say we want to be counted and we want our parish," said John J. Verrengia, 52, a Revere accountant who is leading the small band of worshipers in the working-class seaside community who are still mourning the closure of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in 2004. Four years later, the worshipers are still gathering a few times a year for Masses said by sympathetic Jesuit priests in VFW halls or a park outside the shuttered church.

"You can always keep swinging and hope you get lucky one time," Verrengia said. "And the appeals have been successful, in the sense that the church is still standing. If you can't stop the closure, at least you can forestall the selling of the parish."

Verrengia was the first advocate of a closed parish to receive a copy of a negative ruling, but the Rome-based canon lawyer representing multiple parishes said the Vatican had issued eight nearly identical rulings denying appeals from advocates for parishes the archdiocese had closed in Brookline, Framingham, Lynn, Quincy, Scituate, Sudbury, and Wellesley, as well as Revere.

The rulings are dated April 11, which was four days before Pope Benedict XVI traveled to the United States. The Vatican offered no explanation for why it waited until May 29 to mail the decisions, nor for why it took two years to rule on the appeals. Previously, appeals from the parishioners had been rejected by O'Malley and by a Vatican department called the Congregation for Clergy; the Apostolic Signatura is the highest-level tribunal at the Vatican and the final avenue for appeals.

The rulings criticize the parishioners for focusing on their own concerns, rather than those of the archdiocese as a whole, a critique the parishioners say fails to acknowledge the bonds between Catholics and their parishes. Also, in an unusual admission, the rulings attribute the decline of the parishes in part to the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

The nine parishes with active appeals to the Vatican are only a few of the parishes closed by O'Malley. Since 2004, the archdiocese has reduced its parishes from 357 to 294, and it plans to close two more parishes, in Boston and Brockton, later this month.

Although half the appealing parishes are closed and unused, the parishes in Brookline and Quincy have since reopened as chapels, the parish in Sudbury has reopened as a rectorate, and the parish in Framingham, considered closed by the archdiocese, is being used for worship by both a group of protesting parishioners who are also living in the building, and a group of Eastern Rite Catholics from India, called Syro-Malabars, who were granted building access by the archdiocese.

The appeals are one of three avenues of resistance adopted by worshipers unhappy with the parish closings. Advocates for several closed parishes have filed civil suits over the closings; so far the Massachusetts courts have ruled against parishioners at every step. Advocates for five parishes, including Framingham, have occupied and worshiped in the buildings for as long as four years in a form of resistance they call vigils.

"We in Boston have started this process, and we're pushing the system to its limits," said Peter Borre, cochairman of the Council of Parishes, a coalition of parishioners protesting the parish closings. The council is now advising Catholics trying to prevent closings in other parts of the country.

"The odds of the full bench overturning what the panel has decided are very, very, very low, but there's nothing else we can do, so we're going to go the full distance," Borre said.

The archdiocese issued a statement: "We recognize that the process of closing a parish and transitioning to a new setting is very challenging for all who are involved. In the Archdiocese of Boston, as in many other places, the connection to our familiar place of worship can be very strong. Going forward, we continue to hope and pray that through productive dialogue and mutual respect we can work together to strengthen the church, carry out the mission given us by Christ, and be his witnesses in the world."

Michael Paulson can be reached at