Reconfiguration committee prepares for cluster reports

With the cluster recommendations expected to reach the Central Committee on Reconfiguration in the coming week, its members of have begun preparing for the daunting task ahead — reading through 80 packets of cluster recommendations and then advising the archbishop on which parishes they think should close. For the past several weeks, they have heard hours of presentations on the many factors they will need to consider when making their own recommendations.

The committee, which is comprised of approximately 20 lay, clergy and religious members, began meeting in late February to familiarize themselves with the Archdiocese of Boston in areas such as the status of Catholic schools, the number of active priests, Mass attendance and parish finances. According to Kathleen Heck, Special Assistant for the Moderator of the Curia for Parish Reconfiguration, the group will conclude its orientation period March 23 and could begin receiving cluster recommendations as early as March 26.

During an almost three-hour meeting March 10, committee members listened to a presentation on Mass counts and sacramental indexes — the number of baptisms and funerals at a parish each year plus twice the number of marriages. They were told that between 1989 and 2003 there has been a 22 percent drop in Mass attendance throughout the archdiocese and they were given each parish’s individual statistics. Dwindling Mass attendance has contributed to drops in the sacramental index at some parishes.

Parish Mass counts and their sacramental indexes will be among the criteria the central committee will use when making their recommendations to the archbishop.

Committee members were also briefed on how parishes handle their finances, budgets and payrolls. The financial complexities involved in closing a parish were also highlighted, such as providing benefits to the staff of a closed parish, canceling contracts the parish may have with outside companies and closing the parish’s multiple bank accounts.

Committee members feel that these presentations are preparing them for what many of them have described as a “daunting” task. However, they know that making recommendations as to which parishes they feel should close in a cluster will not be easy.

“I don’t think it’s going to be black and white. I don’t believe that at all,” said committee member and archdiocesan Respect for Life program coordinator, Deb O’Hara Rusckowski. “There is no stand alone cookie cutter process that we are going to be able to look at,” and many factors in addition to the sacramental index will need to be considered, she said.

Committee members also spent a portion of the March 10 meeting discussing ways to respond to media reports that have portrayed parish reconfiguration as a one-step process decided in the clusters.

The recommendations of the clusters and even of the central committee are recommendations, not decisions, stressed committee member Father Brian Kiely, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Natick.

“The ultimate decision resides with the archbishop because we are a hierarchical Church,” he said. “It’s up to him to look at the whole picture — that’s what he brings to this. The clusters are only looking at their particular situation. They do not look at the entire picture — only the archbishop has access to all that information ... he’s also going to know things we [the central committee] won’t be privy to.”

Committee members also addressed the flurry of negative reactions from some parish priests who did not agree with the final recommendations of their clusters. Parish priests have an important role in “shepherding the people through this transition and making them aware just how important this process is and how positive it can be if we do it correctly,” said Father Kiely. He was assigned to St. Jean Baptiste Parish in Lowell at the time it was suppressed in 1993 and understands first hand “how difficult” reconfiguration can be.

Committee member David Hannon, who has experience working on the pastoral council and parish finance committee at his parish in Cambridge, agrees that the reconfiguration process can be positive. He and other members have been disappointed with media coverage that they feel portrays it as a strictly negative undertaking.

“I honestly think that this is part of making the Church better,” he said. “I want the communications to be realistic but on the other hand to be positive, because I think that the archbishop is correct in his assessment that this will make a stronger Church.”

“I’m conscious of the depth of feeling of people who are rooted in the tradition of their community but, on the other hand, I can think of examples in my own city in which the worshipping community has dwindled,” he continued. “The Church should be respected for this. There will be difficult decisions, but not undertaking the decisions is irresponsible.”

Laura Chan, who was a member of the archdiocesan Pastoral Council for the past four years, said that the committee will look at each packet critically before making its recommendations.

“I’m not seeing this process as an easy cakewalk and certainly I don’t envision that this dynamic committee would be a rubber stamping committee,” said Chan, who is also council chairwoman for the Chinese Catholic community in the archdiocese. She said that the committee plans to use many resources such as maps, the situation in surrounding clusters and parish documentation on finances, schools and ethnic apostolates, to verify the “merit” behind each cluster’s recommendation.

“There will have to be some accountability on how they arrived at their recommendations,” said Chan.

She feels that the diverse composition of the committee will help them make insightful recommendations.

“Everybody has something to bring to the table,” said Chan. “Everyone is coming in at a different angle and from a different background, so we have some knowledge of things.”

The committee has scheduled over 10 hours of time in April to begin reading through cluster recommendations, planning meetings on weekends and also taking time off from work and away from family to meet. Asked whether she minded the long hours the process will entail, committee member O’Hara Rusckowski said she finds it “a very worthwhile, minor sacrifice in comparison to how this is going to affect our Church for years to come for decades to come.”