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Future of the Faith, Part Two

This article is more than 11 years old.

The Boston Archdiocese is in recovery mode as it marks its Bicentennial this year.

Distrust from the clergy abuse crisis lingers, some parishioners say the church is too outdated to remain relevant, and most parishes that were closed or merged are still struggling.

Today, we continue our series, "The Future of the Faith," in one of those merged parishes: Saint Cecilia, Boston. WBUR's Martha Bebinger has the story.

TEXT OF STORY:

FATHER JOHN UNNI: Hello everyone and welcome to St. Cecilia's, just as we begin, it's good to know with whom we are celebrating, let's take a minute, shake a hand, say hi, introduce ourselves, but please, say hello....

MARTHA BEBINGER: Father John Unni smiles as he watches parishioners lean across pews to embrace, slap five, tickle babies and then adjust to make room for latecomers. The 6 pm Sunday mass is packed...as were the 9:30 and 11:00 morning services. It's an uncommon sight in the Boston archdiocese...and a relatively new experience at St. Cecilia. Irish servants of Back Bay elite built this ornate church with frescoes, a vast white marble alter and towering stained glass windows in 1894. 75-year-old Carl Pucci remembers a vibrant parish before construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike ripped through the neighborhood.

CARL PUCCI: It was sad, to see the parish die the way it did, cause it was a thriving parish.

BEBINGER: Pucci says, today, his church is rebounding after another rocky period.

PUCCI: It isn't like it was in the 40s, but it's getting there.

UNNI: Hear our prayer this evening, the prayer of this newborn people and strengthen us as people to answer that call

BEBINGER: Three and a half years ago, St. Cecilia's merged with one of 63 parishes the Boston archdiocese has closed since 2004 to save money, consolidate buildings and manage a dwindling number of priests. Many of these parishes are still struggling with anger and distrust and the upheaval. Merging St. Cecilia's, where parishioners were used to Latin and the organ, with St. Ann's, where there was lots of hugging and guitars, did not look easy.

UNNI: I used to jokingly say, that when St. Ann's and St. Cecilia's came together it was like merging St. Water and St. Oil

BEBINGER: Father Unni and his parishioners lost their church St. Ann's. Members of Saint Cecilia's lost their priest, but kept their church. Leaders of both parishes formed a transition team Susan Donnelly says members talked about and focused on their shared faith. She eventually embraced the change.

SUSAN DONNELLY: I like it that not everybody's like me. That's actually a more lovely thing than the safe in my own little Catholic church. It's enhanced my faith.

BEBINGER: Last August, St. Cecilia's invited The Jesuit Urban Center, most of whose members were gay, to join the parish. Frank Lapiana has been overwhelmed by the welcome.

FRANK LAPIANA: My mother used to say, you know, God closes one door and opens another one. I rejoice with the joy I get out of this community. The street people, the children, the college kids. I feel part of whole now; I've never felt such joy and love as I do here.

BEBINGER: Lapiana and long time St. Cecilia's member, Kay O'Halloran, give Father Unni much of the credit for the welcoming spirit that guides this merger.

KAY O'HALLORAN: We're not there, wherever there is, but it's pretty amazing to take 3 entirely different communities and I do attribute a lot of that to John's leadership.

UNNI: It's messy to get out and break bread or donuts and to share our bread with one another, but that's where Jesus is really present too, you with me?

ALEX WILCOCKI: During the homily, Father John is talking directly to me, even though there are 20 million other people in the church.

BEBINGER: Alex Wilcocki comes St. Cecilia's with a growing group of students from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. Fellow parishioner Christie says Unni helps her feel closer to God.

CHRISTIE: If you really feel like somebody's speaking from their heart, and you could see, kinda Christ, I think that's what's going to get people back.

UNNI AND PARISHIONERS: Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name....

BEBINGER: People are coming back to St. Cecilia's...in contrast to the Archdiocese where about 20% of Catholics attend weekly services. The national average is 36%. The merging or closing of parishes in Boston, and the clergy abuse scandal are certainly factors. But Phil Lawler, author of "The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture" argues the decline of the church started decades earlier.

PHIL LAWLER: A lot of people sought to enhance the social and political power of the church first, rather than the spiritual welfare of communities. And that's a wrongheaded approach because the social and political power is a consequence of the spiritual vitality.

BEBINGER: Lawler says Cardinal Sean O'Malley is shifting the focus in Boston back to the spiritual life of the church. But he's skeptical about the group the Boston archdiocese is working with to re-engage Catholics ...saying its approach is gimmicky. Renew International, based in New Jersey, will run a 3 year program where small parish groups meet regularly to pray and discuss spiritual themes. More than half the parishes in the archdiocese have signed up. Workshops for parish clergy and lay leader teams began last week. Cardinal O'Malley says the program has been successful in other parts of the country.

CARDINAL SEAN O'MALLEY: In many of places where Renew has taken place, the no. of volunteers in ministries has increased greatly, so we're hoping that we'll have the same good fortune here in Boston.

BEBINGER: Boston's Renew program is called "Arise Together in Christ." Mary Ann McLaughlin, the Coordinator for the Archdiocese, says it's is an important part of the church's recovery plan.

MARY ANN MCLAUGHLIN: With parishes closing, the sexual abuse crisis, we have a lot of people who are hurt, I know in my own parish the community scattered between 10 parishes that I can count. Arise gives us an opportunity to recognize that woundedness in people. If they're hurt, we want to be able to respond to that.

BEBINGER: St. Cecilia hasn't decided whether it will participate. Parish leaders say they are busy with a major renovation, missions to Haiti or work in local soup kitchens and a growing number of marriages, baptisms and confirmations. The Renew program aside, many parishioners, including Bill Croke, are wary of the institutional church.

BILL CROKE: The Catholic Church is more concerned with doctrine and dogma, that's more important than people and their feelings.

BEBINGER: Croke's face softens as he gazes across the crowd of parishioners lingering after mass.

CROKE: This is the way all churches should be, full of love and full of the spirit.

BEBINGER: St. Cecilia's is attracting old and young alike. BU Student Gillian Taratunio got lost and wandered into the church last September. Now, she comes every Sunday.

GILLIAN TARATUNIO: When I went to church at home, they almost made you feel like you had to know all the doctrine or you weren't a good Catholic and here's its more to be a good person and have compassion for those around you rather than knowing Matthew, Mark, Luke...and the other one.

BEBINGER: Seamus Matlack, who turned 12 yesterday, wants to be sure St.Cecilia's is there when he grows up.

SEAMUS MATLACK: It feels like you will always have a home to go to, no matter what you do. And people there will be believe in you and help you along. Especially in our church, no matter who you are, you're always connected and help each other.

BEBINGER: Kay O'Halloran is concerned about protecting this new parish community. She says St. Cecilia's will be fine as long as the larger church leaves it alone.

O'HALLORAN: The only possible problem is outside interference.

UNNI: The Lord be with you (and also with you). Our Celebration's over, let's go forth to live out tonight's gospel.

For WBUR, I'm Martha Bebinger.

This program aired on April 15, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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