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Vatican raises questions on parish appeals, backs process

By Antonio M. Enrique
Posted: 8/12/2005

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While supporting the fundamental principles and procedures behind the archdiocese’s process of reconfiguration, the Vatican is questioning the disposition of the assets of seven of the 15 parishes that filed appeals to the Congregation for the Clergy.

In an interview with The Pilot Aug. 10, archdiocesan officials said that, while the appeals are still under review, the Vatican has identified what is being described as a “difference of interpretation” of canon law.

“In the last three months we have encouraged the Holy See to respond to the recourses in Rome to bring some closure to those communities,” Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley said.

The archbishop continued, “In the course of those conversations it became apparent that they were supportive of the individual parish closings. However, they had other concerns about particular canons that were invoked in the process that we used here.”

The vast majority of reconfiguration parish closings have been implemented through a process known in canon law as suppression. In the case of suppression, which is governed by Canon 123, a parish is legally dissolved and both the assets and the liabilities of the parish revert to the archdiocese.

From the early stages of the reconfiguration process the archdiocese has said that one of the primary uses of the assets of closed parishes will be to create a fund to benefit those parishes that are unable to be self-sustaining, including many that serve the inner city or immigrant communities.

“One of the reasons the suppression canon was invoked was in order to prevent adding goods to parishes that already had sufficient capital and goods for their ministry, and then putting poor parishes together with the debt and liabilities of their neighbors,” the archbishop said.

“We have tried from the beginning to avoid that by seeing if there is a way to share human and material resources equitably throughout the entire archdiocese,” he continued.

Included in most decrees of suppression was a paragraph assigning the closing parish’s territory to a neighboring parish. By doing so, the Vatican contends, the archdiocese inadvertently invoked Canon 122 that deals with the division of parishes.

According to that canon, a closed parish’s property and bank accounts — along with its liabilities — must be transferred to the receiving parish or parishes.

“When you suppress a parish and in the decree of suppression you tell the people where they are to go, in the view of the congregation, the assets of that parish should follow the parishioners and not go to the archdiocese,” said Father J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston and close advisor to the archbishop in the reconfiguration.

“We asked how we might proceed in that case in order to satisfy their concerns and resolve these recourses,” Archbishop O’Malley said. “They suggested that we contact the pastors of the receiving parish and ask for their cooperation to cede the goods of the closed parishes to the diocese for the general reconfiguration use that had been announced and which was the expectation of all the parishes.”

Eight of the 15 parishes that filed appeals with the Vatican are not affected by the ruling either because their decrees did not specify how the parish’s territory should be allocated — such as the case of St. Anselm in Sudbury — or because they were ethnic national parishes which have no defined territory.

The seven closed parishes with appeals impacted by the Vatican decision are: Our Lady of Lourdes in Revere; Star of the Sea in Squantum; St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in Scituate; Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence in Brookline; St. James the Great in Wellesley; Sacred Heart in Natick; and Our Lady of Mercy in Belmont.

Over the past several weeks Father Mark O’Connell, assistant to the moderator of the curia for canonical affairs, has met with the pastors and finance councils of each of parishes that received territory from one of the affected parishes. In those meetings, Father O’Connell explained the Vatican’s interpretation of canon law and asked parishes for their cooperation in surrendering the properties.

Father John J. Ahern, Pastor St. Mary of the Assumption in Brookline, whose parish received the territory of Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence Parish, said he and his finance council met with Father O’Connell twice and raised several questions about signing over the closed parish’s assets.

Father Ahern said that the assets of Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence include the church and rectory properties and more than $4 million in cash.

He said that parishioners are concerned not so much about turning over the assets to the archdiocese as they about the consequences that the decision will have on further appeals of Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence.

“The initial reaction is caution,” he said. “Our main concern was, and it’s not really been answered, if we in fact did turn over all the assets, does it stop the appeals? We want to make sure the option to appeal is still there if they choose to do that,” he said.

“Clearly I think the council realizes that the needs of the archdiocese are significant,” he said. “If there’s a degree we can be of assistance, we need to be. Just because that’s what Church does.”

Father O’Connell said the archdiocese recognizes how difficult this decision is for pastors and parishes and has not set any deadline for response.

Chancellor David W. Smith stressed that parishes being asked to sign over assets will not be left without the means to absorb parishioners from closed churches.

The archdiocese has a process in place to provide financial assistance to welcoming parishes as the need arises, he said.

Despite the setback, the archbishop was pleased that the Vatican has confirmed the majority of decisions made as part of reconfiguration.

Archbishop O’Malley explained, ‘They [the congregation] are being supportive of our goals and what we are trying to accomplish. They are supporting our procedures to close the parishes and they’ve said we’ve done the consultations correctly. They are not talking about reopening parishes. As far as whether they are suppressions or divisions, on those kind of issues, we’ll need to continue to dialogue.”

Christine Tolfree contributed to this report.