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Interim director speaks on pastoral planning, plan for future


Father Paul Soper Pilot file photo/courtesy George Martell


BRAINTREE -- Since a proposed plan for pastoral planning in the Archdiocese of Boston was announced back in December 2011, group consultations and individual feedback are re-shaping many elements of the initial plan.

Cardinal SeŠn P. O'Malley created the Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission (APPC) in January 2011 to work on a proposal for pastoral planning. The commission presented its initial results in three rounds of consultations, first to the priests of the archdiocese last December, then to pastoral staffs and parish councils and finally to the parish communities. During the consultation process the APPC conducted 40 meetings in all areas of the archdiocese.

According to the committee, the feedback from those meetings prompted the APPC to modify key elements of the initial plan. Those changes were outlined to the Boston presbyterate in June and the committee is scheduled to present its official proposal to Cardinal O'Malley this month for his review.

If Cardinal O'Malley accepts the plan, it will put in motion a process to create over 100 so-called "parish collaboratives" in the next five years. According to committee officials, the plan will retain the integrity of individual parishes, but will assign one pastor to the parishes of the collaborative and a pastoral team to support his work.

The Pilot interviewed Father Paul Soper, interim director of the Office for Pastoral Planning, July 30 to discuss the APPC proposal and the upcoming steps.

Q: Father, you have been part of the APPC since Cardinal SeŠn created it in January of 2011. What has your experience been?

A: It has been a very positive experience. We basically have two options at this point. We can either say we're tired, this has been a distinctly difficult decade in the life of the Church in Boston, we need to just shore up what we've got and to deal with what we can and let what is going to happen, happen. Alternatively, we can say no, we don't give up, we are going to engage these issues, we are going to engage the shortages and, more importantly, we are going to engage the culture. We are going to evangelize, we are going to present, new to this 21st century American culture, this great treasure that has been handed down to us through the centuries: the Gospel of Jesus, the Person of Jesus. He is not irrelevant and we are not going to treat him as if he were irrelevant to the modern world. We are going to engage and we are not giving up.

Q: What has your experience been in these past months, after accepting the role of interim director?

A: Well it's been very interesting work. First of all, I really enjoy working with the people at the Pastoral Center; that has been a very positive thing for me. They are an excellent, very dedicated, very, very faithful group of people and I like working with them a lot.

Also, I have found an enormous amount of good will in pastors and the people in the parishes. People get it, they understand what our issues are, and they know what's possible and what's not possible. The pastors have a very grounded and well-informed perspective on what their parish's strengths and weaknesses are and what might be gained and what might be lost as the parishes enter into collaboration. They understand the geographies of the area, they understand the histories of the area, the cultures of the area and they are very able to bring those things forward.

Q: How did consultation change the initial APPC proposal?

A: I was very involved with the consultation; I was present at 39 out of the 40 meetings. I missed the last one because there were two going on at the same time at opposite ends of the diocese! I got a broad view of that was going on in the consultation. There were a number of points that came up very strongly that I believe we have adequately and appropriately brought into the edits of the pastoral plan proposal which we will bring forward to the cardinal in August.

For instance, probably the hottest topic was the original proposal that said that ordinarily the pastor of the parishes of the collaborative will not have been the pastor of the parishes previously; in other words somebody new would come in from outside. There were good reasons for that; it wasn't a stupid idea. We were worried about making winners and losers within a collaborative. It made sense and it didn't come out of left field. We had some conversations with priests before we put that into the initial proposal. Yet, what we discovered was that there were strong reactions against that part of the proposal. People felt it was too significant a change, too radical, it was too insensitive to the needs of the priest, too insensitive to the needs of the parish and to its stability. They also felt that we were under-assessing the talents of the priests when we suggested that it might be necessary to bring someone new in from the outside because the pastors who were present could not adequately be the pastor of all the parishes. The people said, look, we know our priests, our priests can do that, they are capable of that. So, we backed off from that part of the proposal and said we would find another way of doing that. The current proposal simply asks the archbishop to be very mindful of the needs of evangelization in the area when making assignments to a collaborative.

Another example would be that people brought forward, very strongly, the need for the pastoral plan to be flexible, that it's not going to look the same every place, that it's not one size fits all. The pastoral plan needs to have standards in it, but it needs to be flexibly applied. We have built into the document that we will be presenting to the cardinal a great deal of flexibility, in large part in putting a lot of the detail work into the hands of the collaborative themselves in the formation of what one might call the collaborative pastoral plan.

Each collaborative will have to come up with its own pastoral plan, in which they will explain how they will function as a collaborative, with the resources they have, with their geographic circumstances, with their financial circumstances, with the buildings they have, with the languages spoken in the member parishes, with the histories of the parishes. For instance, religious education. We are not in a position to say all the programs need to be combined into one, nor are we in a position to say, don't combine the religious education programs. Each collaborative knows what they need to do with that and they'll figure that out, but they'll have to explain how they will do that with the resources they have and how they'll do it in such a way that it advances evangelization.

Q: What is the connection between collaboration and evangelization?

A: The connection is that the collaboration will strengthen the parishes; it will strengthen the parishes from a personnel perspective and from a financial perspective.

The parish is the focal point of evangelization. Now, if we were saying that the only way in which we are going to strengthen evangelization is by combining the resources of parishes, no one will believe that, that's not real. But that's not the plan; the plan instead is that through these combined collaboratives that bring together the strengths of various parishes (although remember that the parishes remain separate financial institutions each with their own obligations and assets), we are going to pour our resources into training, not only in collaborative management, but into evangelization.

We are very committed to doing substantial programs of training in the parishes, as each collaborative is formed; we will work with them on leadership training, on the practicalities on running a collaborative parish. But, far more importantly, we will work with them on how to develop programs of evangelization in their local parish.

Q: What is your reaction to the criticism that this plan is yet another way of closing parishes?

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