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O'Malley defends need for closings

Calls for unity among Catholics

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley said yesterday that this week will be "challenging" for area Catholics, but that the multiple parish closings he plans to announce tomorrow are necessary for the health of the Archdiocese of Boston.

In a brief interview after a confirmation Mass at St. Matthew Church, a Dorchester parish that is on the list of possible closings, O'Malley called on Catholics whose parishes close to accept the reconfiguration in the interest of the diocese.

"Everyone understands the pain that we will all experience," O'Malley said. "These are not easy decisions. It would be far easier for me not to make a decision and let things collapse, but I can't do that either."

O'Malley plans tomorrow to announce the names of scores of parishes that he plans to close this year. The move comes in response to insufficient church attendance, a decline in the number of priests, and a shortage of money in the vast archdiocese, which, with 357 parishes and an estimated 2 million adherents, is the region's largest religious denomination.

Even before O'Malley announces the parish closings, signs of unhappiness are intensifying. Outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston's South End yesterday, about 75 people gathered at a rally organized by the lay organization Voice of the Faithful to express concerns about the upcoming reconfiguration of the archdiocese. Some parishes that anticipate closing -- including St. Matthew's -- have begun scheduling prayer vigils tomorrow night, while yard signs began to spring up in Waltham reading "Save Sacred Heart Church," a local parish.

In two public appearances yesterday, a Mass for the sick at the cathedral and the confirmation Mass at St. Matthew's, O'Malley did not make any reference to the upcoming closings, although in his cathedral homily he repeatedly called for unity among area Catholics. In the brief interview, O'Malley declined to provide specifics about tomorrow's announcement, but acknowledged that this will be a difficult time for an archdiocese still reeling from the clergy abuse scandal that erupted 28 months ago.

"It's obviously a very challenging week, but many people are praying . . . and we [place] hope in the prayers and the good will of so many people who have participated in the process and contributed with their ideas and their thoughts," he said.

O'Malley urged area Catholics to focus on the needs of the diocesan church, and not just on their own concerns about their neighborhood parish.

"It's not an easy time for anyone, but we call on people to be generous, to see their connectedness with the entire family of Catholics throughout the archdiocese, and [to] realize that as difficult as the process is, that it is something that is necessary for us to be able to continue our mission and to be able to continue the kinds of services that we have and in reaching people in different neighborhoods," O'Malley said. "The sacrifices that are required will benefit the entire diocese, and so we hope that the people who are called upon to make those sacrifices will do it with a sense of faith and a sense of generosity."

But the rally outside the cathedral suggested that many people will not quietly accept O'Malley's decisions. Some of the demonstrators held signs with slogans such as "Enough is Enough -- No More Pain," "Suppress clericalism, not parishes," and "We built St. William's -- Keep it Open." Others held signs critical of the church hierarchy for its handling of the sexual abuse crisis.

"We have again lost our faith in our archdiocesan leaders," said Sharon Harrington, a parishioner at St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, which is expected to close. "We are very upset because we believe that this process was flawed and unfair. There was no uniform criteria to be applied."

Saying "closing should be the last option, not the first," Harrington called for the archdiocese -- which has already been laying off employees and cutting spending -- to further pare its administrative expenses and to sell off rectories and other nonchurch buildings before closing parishes. She also called for the church to turn over more roles to lay people to reduce the impact of the declining number of priests.

John Hynes, a Voice of the Faithful leader, called for new state legislation to require greater financial reporting by the archdiocese. He did not provide specifics, but said any proposed legislation would honor the principles of church-state separation. "We are not going away -- this is our church and we have a right to a role in its governance and we plan to exercise that right," Hynes said.

Inside the cathedral, O'Malley called for unity among Catholics at a healing service at which he blessed and anointed physically and mentally ill Catholics, some of whom approached him in wheelchairs, or using walkers or guide dogs. "Let us join in prayer for the church, that the Lord will . . . help us to heal all divisions, and live in the unity that Jesus said would be a sign for the world," O'Malley said.

In his homily at St. Matthew's, O'Malley focused on warning young people about the potential negative influence of popular culture -- a recurrent theme in his recent homilies.

"There are so many voices calling you . . . but some of those voices are calling you on a path that leads away from God . . . on a path that leads to destruction, to drugs," he said. "You only have to think of MTV to think of one of those voices. . . . You know MTV packages its message in a way that's very attractive to young people, but what is the message? The message is one of promiscuity, individualism, hedonism, materialism. It's a poisonous message."

O'Malley urged the young people being confirmed to use the Ten Commandments as their guide, and urged them in particular to interpret the commandment that calls for remembering the Sabbath day as an exhortation to regularly attend Mass. "If you are like those Catholics who come to Mass only when they are hatched, matched, and dispatched, then the gifts of the spirit will not be there for you when you need them," he said.

O'Malley also reiterated his concern about New Age spirituality, which he described as a manifestation of the "extreme individualism of our culture."

"That's what the New Age movement is about -- a little inner feeling, a little poetry, a little ritual, but Jesus Christ did not come to the world and die upon the cross so that we could have the warm fuzzies," O'Malley said. "He came to make us a people, a church, a family, a community, a faith."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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