Committee to look at future of parishes

BRAINTREE -- In the coming months, a commission will help lay the groundwork for the archdiocese's future, which will likely result in fewer parishes but a similar number of churches to what it has today.

Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley announced Feb. 2 that he has formed the Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission. The 18-member board, made up of priests, deacons, religious sisters and lay people from around the Archdiocese of Boston, will make a final recommendation to him on a pastoral plan that accounts for resources available in the near future.

"This is an important endeavor that will help guide and shape the future of the archdiocese in meeting the pastoral needs of our parishes and ministries, and in advancing the mission of the Church," the cardinal said.

Archdiocese of Boston Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia Father Richard Erikson did not give a specific timeline for the group to accomplish its work. However, he said that by the end of this year, Church officials could have some sense of how to proceed.

He also said the timeline for implementing the pastoral plan over the long term has not been concretely established, but said Cardinal O'Malley wants a gradual implementation.

Father Erikson said that the committee's goals include assisting Cardinal O'Malley in presenting a future pastoral plan that will "be equal to the resources we have available," and help the archdiocese prepare for "challenges we will have in the future."

He said he anticipates the plan would include a number of parish mergers with individual churches remaining open as places of worship.

"Our hope is to maintain and sustain as many churches as possible," he said.

In contrast, the archdiocese shuttered dozens of church buildings as part of its 2004 parish reconfiguration process, roiling the local Catholic community and sparking several parish vigils and civil and canonical appeals.

Father Erikson expressed his hope that 20 years from now, the archdiocese would have fewer parishes but "not dramatically fewer churches."

He cited dwindling Mass attendance, financial strain on parishes and an anticipated diminishment of the number of priests available for active parish ministry as reasons for implementing a new pastoral plan.

Weekly Mass attendance has plummeted from about 70 percent of the archdiocese's Catholics in the 1970's to 17 percent today.

"We have a system in place, of parishes, that was built for a more engaged, in terms of participation, diocese," Father Erikson said.

Currently, the archdiocese has 291 parishes, with some cities and towns having multiple parishes.

The local Church has also experienced financial challenges in recent years. Operating expenses currently outstrip weekly offertory income in about 40 percent of the archdiocese's parishes.

At the same time, the number of archdiocesan priests available for parish ministry is expected to drop from today's mark of 350 to 180.

"We have to have structures in place that respect the lives our priests live and don't stretch their lives too thin," Father Erikson said.

Cardinal O'Malley formed a pastoral planning committee in 2007 to help him assess the future needs of the archdiocese. As a result, the cardinal formed a pastoral planning office in the archdiocese.

The Office for Pastoral Planning began a series of consultations with priests and laity last year that identified essential elements of a comprehensive pastoral plan -- elements that will be reviewed by this newly formed Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission.

The committee began meeting in January and will continue to meet twice per month in upcoming months.

"We approach our work cognizant of the challenges and opportunities facing the Archdiocese of Boston and inspired by the grace of God's presence throughout," said commission chairman Msgr. William Fay, also the pastor of St. Columbkille Parish in Brighton. "The cardinal has authorized us to shape a plan that will provide the local Church with a roadmap for the future; a plan that supports the good work of our priests and which invigorates parish life."

Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission Members

Msgr. William Fay, pastor, St. Columbkille Parish, Brighton (co-chair)

Deacon Charles Clough, Jr., Holy Family, Concord (co-chair), chairman and CEO of Clough Capital Partners

North Regional Bishop Peter Uglietto

Deacon Andrew Acampora, St. John the Evangelist, Swampscott

Father Jack Ahern, pastor, Blessed Mother Teresa/Holy Family/St. Peter, Dorchester

Father Darin Colarusso, pastor, St. Athanasius, Reading

Linda DeCristoforo, pastoral associate, Our Lady of Grace, Chelsea/Everett

Jane Eiselein, St. Ignatius, Newton, Director of Professional Development at Ropes and Gray

Father George Evans, pastor, St. Julia, Weston

Neal Finnegan, St. Mary, Dedham, former chairman of Citizens Bank

Craig Gibson, St. Mary, Winchester, President of Parish Growth Partners

Sister Mary Johnson, professor of Sociology, Emmanuel College

Liliana Lucas, business manager, St. John the Evangelist, Chelmsford

Father Paul O'Brien, pastor, St. Patrick, Lawrence

Suzanne Robotham, Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, St. Joseph Parish, Belmont

Rick Roche, St. Catherine of Siena, Norwood, CEO of Roche Brothers

Father Paul Soper, pastor, St. Albert the Great, Weymouth

Maria Sousa, religious education director, St. Anthony, Cambridge

Supporting staff

Father David Couturier, Director of Pastoral Planning

Joshua Phelps, Associate Director of Pastoral Planning

Father Robert Oliver, Assistant to the Moderator of the Curia for Canonical Affairs

Father Bryan Parrish, Assistant Vicar for Administration