BOSTON—Parishioners and a high-ranking member of the Boston Archdiocese are disagreeing over whether the official spoke of slashing the number of parishes in half.
The parishioners say chancellor James McDonough told them in a meeting that the archdiocese is aiming to downsize to 150 parishes. But McDonough on Friday denied saying that and added, "We are not looking to close churches."
The archdiocese has already endured a brutal round of church closings after a reconfiguration that began in 2004 and reduced the number of parishes from 357 to 291. Five churches have since been occupied by parishioners who protested the closures by refusing to leave the buildings.
The archdiocese had said it would not move to end the vigils until the closed churches saw their appeals exhausted. It says that happened earlier this year when the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's highest court, rejected appeals from several closed parishes.
McDonough said Thursday that he visited members of an occupied church in East Boston, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, to ask them to end their vigil "for the good of the entire archdiocese."
Steven Ashcraft, a member of the Council of Parishes, which opposes the church closings, was in attendance and told The Associated Press that McDonough discussed the church's financial difficulties and made the remarks about parish reductions.
Ashcraft said he asked if more churches would close, and McDonough responded that the archdiocese would like to get down to about 150 parishes. Ashcraft said he was surprised at the low number.
"I mean, I can understand it. I can understand it, if there's no money," Ashcraft said. "Everybody's just fed up with them."
Ashcraft's version of the conversation was corroborated by vigil member Lorenzo Grasso, who was at the meeting.
"There was nothing to misunderstand about," Grasso said.
Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the Council of Parishes was "wrong and purposely misleading people." Peter Borre, head of the Council of Parishes, responded that his group has "known for a long time that another round of reconfiguration is coming. I believe my friends are reporting accurately what chancellor McDonough said at the meeting."
On Friday, McDonough said in a statement that he was asked about future closings at the meeting. He said he responded that one-third of the parishes are losing money and a third are at a break-even point and feeling financial pressure. He said he also explained that only 17 percent of Catholics in the archdiocese attend Mass and "that in 10 years there would only be approximately 150 priests available."
"In that context, changes needed to be made to create more viable and vibrant parishes," McDonough said. "However, I emphasized that I could not imagine a plan that would close churches."
Donilon said the archdiocese is in the middle of long-term planning about how to "match the resources we have with the number of priests we have, with the demographics of the archdiocese." But he said it was too soon to release details.
"We're looking with a very wide lens to try to provide for the pastoral care of the diocese 10, 20, years out," Donilon said. "We want to be innovative, but we also want to be smart and realists about this."