Diocese takes steps to retool parishes

Goal is mergers, not closings

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / February 3, 2011

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The Archdiocese of Boston is launching a major effort to reorganize its parish structure in response to challenges that have been brewing for decades — declining Mass attendance, diminished financial resources, and a shortage of priests.

Church leaders say they are committed to reversing these trends through evangelization and priest recruitment, but that the new “pastoral planning’’ effort is an acknowledgment that the church’s existing parish structure is unsustainable, and even counterproductive to rebuilding the church.

Under a draft proposal, neighboring parishes would be merged into a single parish, with worship at multiple church buildings. Each clustered parish would be run by a pastor, with help from a team of priests, as well as a consolidated lay parish council, finance council, and parish staff.

“The bottom line is, the structure we have currently was built for, and by, a community where 70 percent of Catholics attended church regularly; now we have less than 20 percent,’’ said the Rev. Richard M. Erikson, vicar general of the archdiocese.

Erikson said the goal is not to close churches, as the archdiocese did during a wrenching process of “reconfiguration’’ seven years ago. Dozens of parishes were closed, including a handful that are still fighting to reopen.

This time, Erikson said, the idea is to encourage collaboration and consolidation so that parishes can be run more efficiently and pastors can delegate some administrative responsibilities, leaving them more time for other aspects of ministry.

“This is about strengthening parishes,’’ Erikson said.

The archdiocese notified parishes last night that Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley has appointed an 18-member Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission of priests, parishioners, and church employees to revise the draft plan, which Erikson said was the result of several years of research and consultation with priests and laity. The commission, which has already met once, will be led by Monsignor William Fay, pastor of St. Columbkille Parish in Brighton, and Deacon Charles Clough Jr. of Holy Family Parish in Concord.

The commission will be charged with submitting a revised plan to O’Malley; no deadline has been set for the commission’s work, and O’Malley has the final word on how the archdiocese proceeds.

Sister Janet Eisner, president of Emmanuel College and cochair of a previous commission that O’Malley had appointed in 2004 to review recommended parish closures, said her commission anticipated a need for better cooperation among parishes.

“The key thing is, to make the parishes vibrant and vital, that’s going to call for collaboration among parishes,’’ she said.

The challenges facing parishes today are significant. According to the archdiocese, 40 percent of the 291 parishes are expected to finish the 2011 fiscal year in the red. The number of active diocesan parish priests is expected to drop from about 350 this year to just 180 a decade from now. (Those numbers, however, do not include the many retired priests, as well as priests who are affiliated with religious orders, who may be assigned to help out at parishes.)

The Rev. Jack Ahern, a member of the new commission and the pastor of three parishes in Dorchester, said one of the most difficult aspects of his job is trying to make all the meetings of multiple parish councils and finance councils.

“It’s doable, but it’s not efficient,’’ he said.

He said parishes in some areas, including Dorchester, have already begun meeting informally to look at ways they could work together; the new commission, he said, would bolster those efforts with a more structured approach.

Peter Borré of the Council of Parishes, a coalition of Catholics protesting some of the parish closings, said that he thought clustering multiple churches within a parish made sense.

“It’s a model that has existed in the Catholic church for decades, and if this model had been utilized seven years ago, in 2004, this archdiocese might be in a better place today,’’ he said.

The archdiocese does not intend to make the draft plan public, and it will release the commission’s final plan only after O’Malley signs off, according to Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

Mary Akoury, a parishioner at St. Albert the Great in Weymouth who helped lead a successful fight to reopen her parish in 2005, said the archdiocese should be open about what it is considering.

“This is going to affect everyone throughout the archdiocese,’’ she said. “My question is, do we have a right, do we have a responsibility, to look at the plan, to ask questions of the plan, to even challenge the plan, so that in the end . . . it will be the most optimal, the best plan for parishes, parishioners, and the archdiocese?’’

In an e-mailed statement to parishes last night, Erikson pledged that the commission would consult with a broad swath of the archdiocese in its work.

“We seek to engage our faithful as partners in this process, understanding that when the Cardinal accepts a pastoral plan, it will be one that has been developed with vital contributions from our Catholic community,’’ he wrote.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at