Planning critical to continue mission, committee says

BRIGHTON -- To stay faithful to the Church’s mission locally, the Archdiocese of Boston must assess its resources and maximize them through comprehensive planning, according to a report issued by the Pastoral Planning Committee.

The Pastoral Planning Committee was formed in January 2006 and charged with the task of suggesting ways for the archdiocese to effectively use its assets to continue God’s mission in the future. The committee wrapped up its work after 18 meetings over the course of 15 months. The 15 committee members include priests, religious and lay leaders.

“If no proactive diocesan-wide planning approach guided by the archbishop is undertaken, the archdiocese faces a continuing series of parish closings resulting especially from staffing limitations and financial problems. It will also face the hurt and anger accompanying such closings,” the document predicted.

The Pastoral Planning Committee was one of three committees formed by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley to address pastoral planning, young adult faith formation and marriage.

In its report, the committee has recommended the formation of a second committee that would develop and implement a pastoral plan for Boston. The document said that, based on statistics, the archdiocese has a seven-year window to act and must have an aggressive timeline, finalizing the plan in three years.

The archdiocese needs to enable vibrant worship communities, reach out to alienated Catholics and rebuild trust in its leaders. Members of the Church in Boston need to work toward a “culture of planning” with trust, unity and hope, it added.

Between 1994 and 2003, the archdiocese closed 42 parishes, mostly through merging parish communities. Since 2004, the archdiocese has closed more than 60 parishes through reconfiguration. The process was marked by parish clusters, but many negotiations “floundered and some became downright ugly,” the report said.

Today, there are 295 parishes in the archdiocese, but a declining number of active priests suggests that “even this number cannot be sustained for long,” the report added.

Currently there are about 500 active priests in the archdiocese. However, each year on average 25 priests retire, die or become disabled while only five are ordained. At this rate, the committee projects, by 2015 there will be 292 active priests with only 212 available for parish ministry.

“Parish life will have to look very different from the present as parishes strive to use more limited resources for mission,” the report said.

Although these statistics can be “off-putting,” the archdiocese can overcome these difficulties through pastoral planning, said Father George Evans, chair of the committee and pastor of St. Julia Parish in Weston.

“God will lead us through,” he said.

Catholics from neighboring parishes need to come together and talk honestly about the resources available in their communities, he said.

Father Robert McMillan, SJ, director of the Planning and Research Office for the archdiocese, said that he hoped the parishes would have the same open dialogue the committee was able to foster.

“The ultimate goal of the report was to set out not a plan but a process that would lead to parishes gathering in that way,” he said.

Instead of operating in a reactive way, pastoral planning would allow the archdiocese and parishes to make creative decisions. It would also tap into the energy of Catholics who want to do something about the future, he said.

Terrance Donilon, spokesman for the archdiocese, said that long-term planning is a sign of strength and will allow the Church in Boston to utilize its resources.

He also reiterated that the plan “is not reconfiguration all over again.”

Sister Marian Batho, CSJ, cabinet secretary for regional services of the archdiocese, said that Cardinal O’Malley will next study and reflect on the report. Prayer, reflection and study are essential to the success of pastoral planning, she said.

The committee’s report is only the beginning, since the committee had a limited period of time to make recommendations on the broad category of pastoral planning, Sister Marian said.

“There’s a lot more that could be said,” she added.

Hopefully, people throughout the archdiocese will talk about the initiative and the archdiocese will work toward a comprehensive plan to benefit the archdiocese, she said.

As the report stated, “Now is the time to pray for a new Pentecost, the rebirth of the Church in Boston, that we trust will come through God’s grace and with the help of this planning initiative.”

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