The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has quietly released its proposed list of what it calls pastoral collaborations. This plan groups two to four churches, overseen by one parish priest.
The archdiocese says grouping parishes is a way to address the challenges it faces — decreased attendance, tightening finances and a shortage of priests. But the strategy is taking many Catholics by surprise, and facing criticism among some priests.
The archdiocese wants to regroup 290 parishes into 125 collaboratives (PDFs - South, North, Central, West, Merrimack Region). You might call them super-parishes: the super-parish will have a pastoral service team, headed by a pastor with additional priests and a business manager. The cluster will also include a religious education director, a music director and other jobs that currently are filled by individual parishes.
"We made this proposal looking at the fact that this is already happening, it’s going to continue to happen," said Monsignor William Fay, co-chair of the Archdiocesan Planning Commission. "The alternative will be that we look at the merging of parishes and closing some of them, which was not a direction we wanted to go in."
Fay said this is a draft and he welcomes feedback. In general, each cluster will involve two to four churches. For example, the three churches in Beverly will be under one pastor. And the stand-alone churches in Hanover, Norwell and Pembroke will be put together under one group.
Trying Out The New Plan
The archdiocese has already been trying out this plan. Over the past couple of years it has combined 46 separate parishes into 23 clusters. An additional nine churches were put into three clusters.
The archdiocese says grouping parishes is a way to address the challenges it faces — decreased attendance, tightening finances and a shortage of priests.
Father Jack Ahern oversees three churches in Dorchester — Holy Family, Saint Peter and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, where I met him. He has two other priests in his group helping him, but said it can still be chaotic jumping around to say Mass.
"Sometimes you might have the 9 (a.m. service) here at Blessed Mother and still have the 10 at Holy Family. Any given week, one of the other two priests may be on vacation or away," Ahern said.
Ahern is 58 and rarely sits still. He said when the archdiocese asked him to take on the cluster, he was ready for the challenge.
"As difficult as it is to maintain the three parishes, the fact that when I came in the cardinal said, 'We are not closing parishes, we have given some stability to the people, they aren’t wondering when the next shoe is going to drop.' "
Some Priests, Parishioners Skeptical Of Plan
But this plan isn't reassuring everyone, according to a priest who attended a meeting with the archdiocese this week, when it revealed details of the cluster plan. Many priests have been critical. The priest, who doesn't want to be named, said they are wondering why the archdiocese needs to force this across the board when it’s already happening gradually. And they don’t understand how the archdiocese will manage these groupings.
Parishioners are worried about what happens if two failing parishes are put together.
"We saw this movie in 2004, that’s all that one can say here," said Peter Borre, one of many Catholics who see this as the first step toward closing more churches, despite what Cardinal O'Malley says.
Borre is with the Council of Parishes, which has been fighting to keep parishes open with vigils.
"At the beginning, we’re going to do analyses, we're going to do pastoral planning, nothing is going to be closed. That’s bananas, because by their own statement the current course of action not sustainable," Borre said.
It's not sustainable, the archdiocese said, because it has been challenged not only by weak finances, but also by declining Mass attendance. Fewer than 16 percent of those who call themselves Catholic in the Boston area go to church. On top of that there are fewer and fewer priests. The church said this church grouping plan will strengthen parishes and attract more church goers.
But before that happens, there will be an upheaval in personnel. It’s proposed that every priest, deacon and other religious staff person be reassigned. And lay employees, such as church secretaries and music directors, will have to reapply to be part of a parish cluster.
Many Parishioners Unaware Of Changes
So far it doesn’t appear the archdiocese has done a good job communicating the plan to parishioners. After Mass at St. Theresa’s in West Roxbury Wednesday, most parishioners said they had never heard of it.
Miriam Thorne thought it sounded like it could work if it put everybody in one church.
"I will have no problem with it," Thorne said. "It probably will be to our advantage," she added, because as a whole the more people that worship in one church the better it is.
But the plan doesn't include closing any church buildings, just consolidating personnel.
Mary Akoury a parishioner at St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, has been keeping an eye on the process closely. But she said when she's mentioned it to friends and relatives in other parishes, they knew nothing.
"They were absolutely clueless when I told them," Akoury said. "'They are going to be announcing the pastoral service center,' and they looked at me with this blank stare — 'What are you you talking about?' So I think for a lot it has come as a surprise."
Akoury's parish will be grouped with St. Francis Xavier, which is also in Weymouth. It’s a much larger church that she knows little about. And Akoury said this proposal feels more like a business plan.
"When (you) look at the pastoral plan and you think of what has happened, in terms of downsizing of larger companies and the Walmarts and the mom and pop operations, it’s almost like what the archdiocese is recommending is similar to what’s going on in today’s world," Akoury said.
Still, Akoury said she understands it may be the only way to go, given the shortage of priests. But she wishes the Catholic Church will resolve the underlying problems, for instance by allowing married men and women to join the priesthood.
But these are issues for the Vatican in Rome. In Boston, the archdiocese said grouping parishes will make the church stronger.
This program aired on January 26, 2012.