Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley said yesterday that the consolidation of the Archdiocese of Boston's 357 parishes will be "a painful undertaking," but that he plans an unusually aggressive approach that will result in the announcement of some church closings as early as June 1.
O'Malley did not say how many churches he will close, but he said 50 parishes are unable to pay their bills and that many others are surviving only by depleting their savings. He also said that the cash-strapped Roman Catholic archdiocese, which has staved off bankruptcy by borrowing $135 million over the last year, would face a staggering $104 million bill just to repair its buildings within the city of Boston.
"There is no painless dentistry," O'Malley said in a speech to approximately 600 priests gathered in an auditorium at Boston College. "I know that people are loath to close a beloved parish and parish church. But we must help our parishioners to see that it is because of the needs of our family that we make these painful sacrifices."
To demonstrate the seriousness of his intent, O'Malley imposed immediate bans on the appointments of pastors, on parish capital fund-raising campaigns, and on parish initiatives such as the purchase or sale of properties, building construction, renovation, or expansion, except in cases where necessary for safety.
Although decisions to close parishes have in the past taken years, O'Malley said he hopes to decide within a year.
O'Malley urged priests to explain to parishioners that the $85 million settlement of clergy sex abuse cases is being funded by the sale of the former cardinal's residence and insurance funds, not with parish funds.
He said that the archdiocese would have needed to close churches even without the clergy sexual abuse crisis, but that the crisis has created new pressure to close churches by worsening the church's financial situation.
O'Malley pleaded for priests to come together across ideological lines to help the broader church.
"Where pastors explain the reasons for this and give parishioners a sense of hope and excitement over the possibility of forming stronger communities, closures have been very successful," he said. "Unfortunately, we have all seen what can happen when a pastor resists and engages in passive-aggressive behavior that immediately infects the whole parish community with a spirit of despair."
O'Malley, who was installed July 30 as archbishop of Boston, leads an archdiocese that has been wracked by problems over the last two years as a result of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. A Capuchin Franciscan friar, O'Malley replaced Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who resigned a year ago as a result of the scandal.
The archdiocese has already closed 48 parishes over the last 18 years because it is saddled with too many aging buildings in neighborhoods where too few people go to church. O'Malley said that next month he will issue a letter to parishioners explaining the need for consolidation and that he will then allow a month for auxiliary bishops and regional vicars to meet with priests and laypeople to make suggestions about which churches should be closed or merged.
In mid-March, O'Malley plans to instruct small groups of parishes located near one another to come up with suggestions on how to reduce their numbers to a level that he will specify. O'Malley said he expects to make decisions about which parishes to close on a staggered basis, starting in June.
O'Malley will seek advice from a new archdiocesan committee of priests and laypeople, to be headed by Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who served as administrator of the archdiocese for seven months after Law's resignation. But final decisions about parish closings in the Catholic Church are ultimately made by the diocesan bishop, O'Malley, and some decisions, particularly regarding the sale of property, will require the approval of the Vatican.
At a press conference after the speech, O'Malley said that, as the archdiocese makes decisions about which parishes to close, "special regard" must be given to parishes that serve recent immigrants and to parishes that run schools.
O'Malley's speech, originally scheduled for Dec. 6 but postponed because of a snowstorm, had been much anticipated, because the consolidation he is proposing promises to transform the largest religious denomination in eastern Massachusetts. The Robsham Theater Arts Center at Boston College was packed, with some priests sitting in the aisles or standing in the back.
The meeting was not open to the public, but in an apparent reflection of a new commitment to openness, the archdiocese immediately released a videotape and a transcript of O'Malley's remarks, and the archbishop addressed reporters at St. John's Seminary within minutes after the meeting adjourned.
The archdiocese also asked four priests, including the leader of a priests' organization that has not been sanctioned by the chancery, to make themselves available for interviews afterward.
At times during the speech, O'Malley resorted to humor or personal anecdotes to liven up his hourlong remarks, and some priests said they had not heard such levity from an archdiocesan bishop in years. At one point, O'Malley told a story about his family's decision to sell a beloved house built by his grandfather because it no longer met the family's needs; at another point, referring to his promise to pray for the city's baseball team, he said, "I know that I let you down, because the Red Sox lost the pennant."
Priests interviewed by phone after the meeting were generally supportive of O'Malley's decision to close parishes, which is widely understood to be necessary because of declining numbers of worshipers and priests and because of the archdiocese's weak financial condition.
"It's a little bit scary, because I don't know what the future holds," said the Rev. David P. O'Donnell, who is pastor of St. Colman of Cloyne Church in Brockton and the administrator of Sacred Heart Church in that same city. "But I do believe that ultimately, as a result of reconfiguration, the parishes will be stronger."
Some priests expressed concern about whether the rapid pace will allow time for full participation.
"This very definitely needs to happen," said the Rev. Austin H. Fleming, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in West Concord. "The dwindling number of priests and the demographic changes in the archdiocese have been going on for a long time, but pastors and bishops have been afraid to tackle the issue. But I'm concerned because I don't know how much substantial input from the grass roots is going to be possible in the timeline he provides."
Some priests were unhappy with aspects of O'Malley's speech.
"I was disappointed, because I didn't hear anything about the healing that needs to happen, and to me that's a critical piece," said the Rev. John Ardis, director of the Paulist Center in Boston. "To me, an essential area would have been how are we going to heal from the terrible ordeal we've been through the last two years."
But others, many of whom were seeing O'Malley for the first time in such a setting, were delighted.
"I thought it was the most positive meeting us priests have had in years," said the Rev. Arnold F. Colletti, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Lexington.
"Despite the fact that it looks like the church is decaying -- with parishes closing, poor attendance of parishioners at worship, and dwindling number of priests -- I am hopeful of a rebirth," he said.
Voice of the Faithful, a Newton-based organization urging a greater role for laypeople in the church, called for "a new, collaborative model" for parish closings, and added: "It is encouraging to hear that the archdiocese says it will solicit considerable local input by laypersons and parish clergy."
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com.