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Spotlight Report

Mix of priests named to guide archdiocese

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 3/19/2004

In the most visible sign to date of his effort to bring a greater diversity of priests and laypeople into his administration, Roman Catholic Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley yesterday announced the names of 41 priests who will assist him in governing the Archdiocese of Boston.

The new membership of the presbyteral council, about half of which was chosen by elections, appears to represent the theological mix among Boston priests. The panel includes critics of the hierarchy and well-known loyalists; among the membership are three leaders of the Boston Priests Forum, an organization of local priests, as well as two of the priests who publicly called for Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign in 2002.

O'Malley is also in the process of remaking the archdiocesan pastoral council, which is supposed to be a vehicle for laypeople, as well as clergy, to propose "practical conclusions about those things which pertain to pastoral works in the diocese," according to church law.

Council membership
Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley yesterday announced the names of 41 priests who will assist him in governing the Archdiocese of Boston as members of a presbyteral council. See the list of members.

The archbishop's moves to rejuvenate bodies that critics viewed as secretive and ineffectual under Law's administration appear to be a response to the complaints, often expressed during the clergy sexual abuse crisis, that priests and laypeople have had little voice in church administration. Those complaints spawned the creation of two new organizations, Voice of the Faithful, representing laypeople, and the Boston Priests Forum.

"There was a feeling among some, whether true or not, that the past presbyteral council and archdiocesan pastoral council were ineffective, because of patterns of behavior and patterns of administration that had not allowed for as much full discussion or input as could have happened," said O'Malley's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne. "The present efforts are being done within the structures that have always been there, but in a way that is to make them as helpful and healthy as can be for the sake of the pastoral mission of the Archdiocese of Boston."

Law had conceded that the panels were not working and had proposed to overhaul them before he quit in December 2002. Under Law, the groups' agendas were generally set by chancery officials, not by the priests or the laypeople. Many members were intimidated by Law and reluctant to express disagreement. Few priests or laypeople who did not serve on the panels had much idea what the groups were doing, and meetings of the pastoral council were sometimes so packed with bishops and priests that laypeople wound up a minority.

O'Malley has sought to make both groups more geographically representative, part of an effort to use the archdiocese's geographic subdivisions as a method of hearing concerns and communicating plans. Also, he is sharply restricting the number of priests and bishops who will attend meetings of the pastoral council to make sure laypeople are a clear majority at those meetings, according to aides.

The archbishop's actions also reflect his belief that the church does not need new democratic structures, but instead can respond to concerns of priests and laypeople by revitalizing existing church structures. The presbyteral council is required by canon law -- and, under canon law, O'Malley cannot close parishes until "he has heard the presbyteral council." O'Malley has said that he plans in May to announce a plan to close an unspecified number of parishes this year.

The presbyteral council, which met for the first time yesterday, will face its first major challenge this spring, when O'Malley will consult with the members about his plan to close numerous parishes. The pastors of four churches recommended for closure by their local clusters serve on the presbyteral council.

The council announced yesterday by O'Malley has 47 members, including the archbishop and five other bishops. Twenty-four priests on the panel were elected, including 22 elected by vicariate, a geographic subdivision of the archdiocese, and two elected by retired priests.

O'Malley chose the rest of the priests on the panel to represent religious orders, such as the Jesuits and the Franciscans, and to add age and ethnic diversity.

Canon law says "about half" of a presbyteral council should be elected by priests. Under Law, that half was elected by priests grouped together by decade of ordination, a method that critics said left the council membership unaccountable to parishes.

"Cardinal Law micromanaged things, and created an atmosphere that was cordial but stifling -- he was such a dominant personality that people who spoke out spoke out at great risk," said the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, president of the Boston Priests Forum, who served on the previous presbyteral council. "There was a serious need to reform the presbyteral council."

Bullock noted that O'Malley met with the leadership of the priests' forum, a group with about 200 members, last month.

Another priest, the Rev. Robert J. Bowers of Our Lady Catherine of Siena in Charlestown, said the reform of the presbyteral council "is encouraging, because it seems to imply a greater degree of priestly involvement in the life and mission of the church." Bowers said "there will be a lot of diverse attitudes and perspectives brought to the table."

A member of Law's archdiocesan pastoral council, Voice of the Faithful executive director Steve Krueger, said the old archdiocesan pastoral council had suffered from a lack of clear purpose. But Krueger also criticized O'Malley's method of remaking the panel, which he said depends on priests to recommend and approve lay members.

Under Law, some of the lay members of the archdiocesan pastoral council were recommended by laypeople gathered at convocations and then appointed by church officials. Under O'Malley, they are being recommended by vicars to represent regions of the archdiocese.

O'Malley is still in the process of selecting an archdiocesan pastoral council and is not expected to name its members for another month or so.

Krueger said Voice of the Faithful leaders, worried about O'Malley's plans for parish closings, yesterday met with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to discuss their shared concerns.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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