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Archbishop addresses Boston Catholics on reconfiguration, future

By Meghan Dorney
Posted: 2/6/2004

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As of press time, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley was scheduled to make a live address on Boston Catholic Television (BCTV) Feb. 4 to discuss details of the parish reconfiguration process in an effort to keep Catholics informed. In a copy of his statement, which was made available to The Pilot just hours before the broadcast, he asked Catholics for their cooperation in the process of parish closings and urged them to “be creative” when offering their recommendations and solutions for parish closures.

In his prepared text, the archbishop stated that reconfiguration must be completed as swiftly as possible. “We cannot afford to drag the process on over too lengthy a period,” he said. “We need you to make this process a priority now.”

The archbishop said that he hopes to conduct the process according to the timetable he laid out to priests and to the Catholic community in January. He said that until the process is finished the archdiocese is “held hostage,” unable to name pastors, establish new archdiocesan programs or repair Church buildings and property.

"We do not have the luxury to tarry in the task at hand," he stated.

The archbishop called upon Catholics to work together during cluster meetings, despite their hesitations and anxieties about the future of their own parishes. He asked for their help in determining which parish closures will best strengthen the archdiocese and further the mission of the Church as a whole.

"The process of reconfiguration that we are all involved in is intended to elicit advice from parishes and their people, from the vicars, regional bishops and a central committee so that I can make decisions as to how to best use our talents and resources as Church," said the archbishop in his statement.

The number of parishes that will close has not been finalized — that number will be decided after consultation from the different groups involved, he said.

Parishes are currently involved in meetings with representatives from other parishes in the area, drafting proposals saying which parishes, if any, should close in their cluster. Each cluster meeting will be made up of pastors, parish staff and members of pastoral and finance council members from each parish. According to a letter written by vicar general Bishop Richard G. Lennon Jan. 10, each group’s recommendations must be submitted to the archdiocese by March 8.

"This is not a pre-ordained outcome," Archbishop O'Malley explained. "You have before you the opportunity to make recommendations for identifying some parishes for closing and others for growing."

"It is only after the process has finished that any decisions will be made about parish or school closings," he continued. "Make this process work by giving me very good advice, well thought-out and balanced with an understanding of the challenges."

In the text of his address, Archbishop O’Malley described the reconfiguration process as a time of growth and opportunity that can strengthen the archdiocese as a whole. Using the word “dream” repeatedly, he encouraged Catholics to envision what they want from their Church as a result of the reconfiguration process.

"We need to dream together about what we can accomplish as a Church," he said.

"Do you long for more participation and better music at Mass, do you hope for a vibrant youth group for your teens, do you wish there were something more parishes could do to accommodate the elderly, do you see a vision of a parish where people are eager to gather to share how they live the Gospel? Can you picture a parish that reaches out to the community with the love and support that a strong faith community can offer? Dream and plan," the archbishop continued.

The archbishop outlined the factors that have led to parish and school closings such as changing demographics, a shortage of priests, a decrease in regular Mass attendance and the financial difficulties and disrepair of many parishes.

Citing Dorchester and North Andover as an example of the migration of Catholics from cities to suburbs, he said that in the last 15 years, baptisms at all parishes in Dorchester decreased by over 400, while the number at St. Michael Parish in North Andover increased by 50 percent.

"Clearly, Church resources have to be reallocated to meet the decrease in needs in some places and the increase in others," the archbishop said.

Archbishop O’Malley also cited a decline in the number of priests as an important factor in the closures. He said that since 1988 the number of active diocesan priests in Boston has declined by over 37 percent and that there are only 40 seminarians currently studying for the priesthood in the archdiocese. He encouraged Catholics to assist in fostering vocations.

"The median age of priests in the archdiocese is 59 and the number of active priests over 70 years old is 132," he said in the statement. "In the next 10 years the number of active priests will be drastically reduced by death and retirement."

Many parishes and schools cannot pay their expenses and are becoming increasingly debt ridden, putting both insurance and pension programs “at risk,” the archbishop said. According to Archbishop O’Malley, at the beginning of the Jubilee year the archdiocese forgave $26.6 million dollars in debt owed them by parishes and schools. During the past three years, parishes and schools have amassed additional debt of $7.4 million dollars.

A large number of archdiocesan properties are also in serious disrepair and would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to bring them up to “an acceptable standard of usability,” he said.

By decreasing the number of parishes, those remaining will be more capable of addressing the needs of Catholic community, Archbishop O’Malley said. Through recapitalizing and reallocating resources, more funds can be used for increasing social service programs and strengthening remaining parishes and schools and enhancing evangelization, he continued.

"This process will, in the end, affect each and every agency and parish of the archdiocese to provide the Church in Boston the strength to use its resources to address the needs of its people and to foster the growth of its mission," said Archbishop O'Malley in his statement.

He also updated Catholics on where the archdiocese has come in terms of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Archbishop O’Malley discussed the archdiocese’s response to the aftermath of the clergy abuse scandal, which has occupied much of his time since he arrived. He reiterated that the sale of the former Cardinal’s Residence, the surrounding Church property and money received from the archdiocese’s insurance carriers will fund the $85 million abuse settlement.

Archbishop O’Malley was hopeful because a number of Catholics who have stepped away because of the scandal are returning to the Church. Donations to the Annual Catholic Appeal are also up from last year, surpassing the $9 million fundraising target by $1.5 million, he said.

However, in light of this positive response, he said the archdiocese faces the bleak financial reality of functioning with a $4 million deficit in the next fiscal year. In addition, the archdiocese must still repay the $37 million borrowed from the Knights of Columbus two years ago.

On another note, the archbishop spoke of the favorable compliance audit the archdiocese recently received by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an indication of the archdiocese’s commitment to abuse prevention and healing.

In another development, he said, new members of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council and of the Presbyteral Council will soon be brought together to consult with the archbishop in a number of matters. He said that he is “delighted” that Father Bryan Hehir has begun his position as head of Catholic Charities in the archdiocese, the Church’s social service agency. The archbishop finally urged Catholics to become better informed of Church’s social teachings.