Archdiocese proposes plan to share parish resources

BRAINTREE -- The Archdiocese of Boston is set to propose a plan to organize parishes into small groups to share resources, which it says will allow parishes to focus on the work of evangelization.

The plan, put forward by the Archdiocesan Planning Commission, was set to be unveiled at a gathering of all the priests in the archdiocese on Dec. 5. However, details of the plan became public after the media obtained documents describing the plan distributed in preparation for the gathering.

Msgr. William P. Fay, pastor of St. Columbkille in Brighton and co-chairman of the Archdiocesan Planning Commission, said the archdiocese began planning the change with a key question in mind, "How can we re-energize the archdiocese in terms of moving out and bringing the gospel of Christ to others in such a way that people are not only attracted but can become committed?"

Under the plan, the archdiocese's 290 parishes would be paired into 125 groups, most consisting of two or three parishes, which would be served by a Pastoral Service Team or PST, "consisting of priests, deacons, lay ecclesial ministers, finance councils and parish councils that serve multiple parishes," according to the archdiocesan document.

All parishes grouped under a PST would share the same pastor. These teams will service small groups of parishes in local clusters. One pastor will lead the team in scheduling Mass coverage, condensing assets and missions, and managing the individual assets of each parish.

"As opposed to a plan for merging parishes and closing church buildings, this plan adopts an approach that strengthens and enlivens our current parishes," the document said. "By creating these teams, improved pastoral services can be provided to parishes without altering the parishes themselves."

The archdiocese said, after considering practices implemented throughout the country, the commission developed the PST model specifically for the Archdiocese of Boston "as the way that best fits our local circumstances and can be implemented effectively."

Each parish in the group will maintain its separate identity and "will retain responsibility for its own assets and liabilities, including the Church and other buildings it owns," the document said.

The document said the proposed new structure will not change the parishes themselves. The initiative would focus instead on the means by which pastoral services are provided in and to parishes.

"A greater coordination of trained personnel and the consolidation of similar works and ministries in parishes within a pastoral collaborative will ease the burden currently experienced by pastors and staff and will strengthen evangelization," an FAQ accompanying the document said. "This is especially true where a pastor has responsibility for multiple parishes and multiple staffs."

"The parishes of the Archdiocese are Eucharistic communities of God's faithful people, entrusted with carrying out the mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ," the archdiocese said. "PSTs are the means by which services are provided for each community to fulfill the Gospel mission."

Officials at the archdiocese developed the new pastoral plan over the course of the past 10 months to address declining church attendance, falling revenues, and shrinking numbers of new priests. The plan, which the document called Disciples in Mission, will create a new structure to address the needs of individual parishes on a local level beyond resources normally available to a single parish by creating Pastoral Service Teams.

With 40 percent of parishes unable to pay their bills, the archdiocese moves to institute the PST structure to combat what the Boston Archdiocese sees as an unsustainable, unhealthy pastoral service structure, according to the document. Permanent deacons remain unevenly deployed, parishes cannot replace pastoral associates and religious educators quickly enough, and current structures stretch priests too thin. All this, as costs continue to rise for the archdiocese and the individual churches.

In the document, the archdiocese stated a focus on putting the local parishes in the driver's seat by having PST bodies create their own plans, called Pastoral Plans for moving the evangelizing work of the Church forward. The document characterized the evangelizing mission of the Church within the context of the plan via five Mission Initiatives laid out under strategic priorities set forth by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley.

"These initiatives are: (1) Becoming a Church that More Readily and Actively Welcomes Every Man, Woman and Child to Conversion of Life in Christ Jesus; (2) Strengthening our Parishes as Primary Communities of Faith; (3) Growing the Church through Evangelization; (4) Developing Excellence in Faith Formation for Catholics of All Ages; and (5) Re-energizing Pastoral Leadership," the document said.

In a meeting with The Pilot, archdiocesan officials said the plan comes as a natural outgrowth of previous restructuring and plans in the Church, as it moves away from a mindset of maintenance within the community toward a mindset of mission within the community. Within the framework of the plan, as described in the document, the Church will move away from problems in keeping individual churches open miring the Church, and toward the mission of promoting the Gospel. According to the document, and archdiocesan officials at the meeting on Nov. 30, addressing these problems through PST actions will clear the way for a renewed focus on evangelization.

"Along the way we began to focus in on the issue of parishes, because if evangelization is going to take place successfully, it's really going to happen at the parish level," Msgr. Fay said, in the meeting. "As you can see from the documentation we have given you, that is the first significant proposal that we're coming forward with."

The archdiocese had planned to release the documents to the public at on Dec. 6, after a consultation with archdiocese priests on Dec. 5.

"We are looking at Monday as the first step in a months-long conversation here," Msgr. Fay said. "This is going to go on for four to six months, this whole dialogue and hearing from people. Everybody who wants to be involved in this will have an opportunity to be involved in it, and to respond in any way that's appropriate."

Msgr. Fay said the archdiocese has some 25 to 30 questions to review with priests regarding the plan, at a consultation on Dec. 5.

At the meeting with The Pilot on Nov. 30, Msgr. Fay described the need to open a dialogue between the archdiocese and the parishes.

"We just felt as a commission that we really needed to focus in on the parish situation, because it involves structural reality, and we needed to think it through, to imagine what it would look like, and then to create a situation to start a consultation with people and say, 'Have we got this piece OK?'"