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A plan to revive the Boston Archdiocese by organizing its 288 parishes into 135 clusters that share staffing and resources has reached Cardinal Sean O'Malley for final approval.
The Boston Archdiocese devised the plan over nearly two years as it faces potentially crippling problems, including a priest shortage, and worsening financial and attendance numbers. The proposal aims to keep parishes intact while a push to draw back lapsed Catholics reinvigorates the archdiocese and fills up churches again.
Two key archdiocesan groups, the Presbyteral Council and Cardinal's Cabinet, approved the proposal earlier this month. O'Malley will make his decision by November.
The Rev. Paul Soper, interim Director of Pastoral Planning, said Monday that after an extraordinarily damaging decade, including the exposure of the clergy sex abuse scandal and widespread parish closings, the archdiocese has rejected retreat and chosen to believe in a better future.
"If we start closing parishes, we're giving up," Soper said. "This pastoral plan is specifically not giving up. We're saying we have something that is extraordinarily precious...and that is the person of Jesus Christ."
Just 16 percent of Boston's 1.8 million Catholics attend Mass and 40 percent of parishes can't pay their bills — a number Soper says is worsening. Also, an aging corps of about 330 priests in active parish ministry will fall to under 200 in a decade.
Under the plan, the parishes are grouped into 135 collaboratives consisting of one to four parishes and headed by a single pastor, with shared clergy and staff under him. The parish retains its legal identity, including its name and assets, but may shed redundant resources — maybe a sparsely-filled parish rectory, for instance.
In the meantime, the church will use community outreach, social media, and other strategies to draw back the mass of lapsed Catholics in an initiative called the New Evangelization.
The list of which churches will collaborate isn't final, though preliminary groupings have been released. If O'Malley approves the plan, the first of the collaboratives — including 10 to 15 churches — could be functioning by mid-2013, with the others phased in over five years or so.
The archdiocese's hope for revival comes as national trends show more people leaving church, and amid the likelihood that the change will cost the archdiocese at least some members.
David O'Brien, a retired University of Dayton professor of faith and culture, said while the Christian message has proven it can energize people, evangelization won't work if it's seen as tool in a membership drive rather than a commitment to minister to others.
He added that major restructuring traditionally isn't effective unless everyone buys in, especially the people who've worked for the church, and that's extremely difficult.
"Everybody's got to be on board, not just the bishop," O'Brien said.
There's been anxiety about the change. Some parishioners have worried it was a pretext for more parish closings. And one priest wrote O'Malley that he feared that the dozens of priests who aren't chosen to lead collaboratives would be demoralized, and even physically ill.
Soper, also a parish priest in Weymouth, said the archdiocese has made extensive efforts to get input from clergy and the public and will thoughtfully implement the plan, if it's approved. Officials estimate 20,000 parishioners attended meetings at more 200 parishes, and Soper said there were 8,000 pages of feedback. He read each one, he added.
"What I didn't hear in any moment was, 'Let's give up,'" Soper said. "What I heard was, 'How can we make this thing work?'"
This program aired on September 17, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.
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