There are big changes coming to the Archdiocese of Boston, once again.
On Thursday, the Catholic Church announced it has approved plans to take its 288 stand-alone parishes and merge them into about half as many so-called collaboratives. These will be run by one parish priest, a parochial vicar and a business manager. The plan is prompting some people to call it a second round of reconfiguring the archdiocese.
Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said Thursday that the new plan does not close churches. He said it's centered on evangelization and a new way of staffing parishes.
"Parishes are at the heart of the new evangelization," O'Malley said. "They must be well-staffed and financially sound to be effective in their mission. For this purpose the pastoral plan groups parishes of the archdiocese into approximately 135 collaboratives."
The proposal is hardly any different from what they quietly released in January for feedback. Each parish will maintain its name, church and buildings and finances. But two to four churches will be managed in a collaborative headed by one priest, a pastoral council and a financial council. The archdiocese will appoint priests to new assignments.
O’Malley said these cooperatives will be responsible for coming up with plans to bring back lapsed Catholics.
"They must refocus on outreach and evangelization," O'Malley said, "that we can’t use all of our resources and time just to serve the active Catholics in the community."
The church has a lot of work to do. In the Archdiocese of Boston, only 16 percent of people who identify themselves as Catholic attend Mass regularly. That’s half the national rate.
The cardinal said the archdiocese will roll out the plan gradually over the next five years; the first list of grouped parishes will be announced in January.
All this brings to mind a painful process from 2004 when the church closed more than 80 parishes in a large reconfiguration. The reaction then was fierce. In nine, parishioners refused to leave their closed churches, occupying the buildings in 24-hour vigils to prevent the archdiocese from changing the locks. Two churches remain occupied.
"More of the same, this is Reconfiguration 2," said Peter Borre, head of the Council of Parishes, a group formed to help churches fight closings. He, and others who fought reconfiguration, see this plan as another way to close churches eventually.
"Because what’s very clear is that as these collaboratives are formed, within each collaborative someone will be voted off the island," Borre said. "That’s how I've read it through leaked minutes of the council of priests, and that’s how it is shaping up."
The archdiocese said this plan does not close churches. But that could happen if a parish collaborative wants it, said Bishop-elect Robert Deeley.
"Such a decision, which would come from the collaborative, would then be weighed within the consultation process that we would have in the archdiocese to make sure the needs of the people are taken care of if in fact it is necessary to close a church," Deeley said.
The archdiocese saving money did not motivate these changes; it currently has a balanced budget. But 30 percent of parishes operate in the red. O’Malley said the groupings will help.
He acknowledged these changes will make parishioners and priests anxious, but O’Malley thinks Catholics want to focus their attention on growing the church.
"I think we are going to encounter a lot more enthusiasm than resistance," O'Malley said.
The archdiocese said it consulted 25,000 people about this plan, including priests. But some of them say it was set from the beginning, and any attempt to get feedback was insincere.
The bright spot for the archdiocese is that the number of men studying to become ordained priests has increased. But it’s not keeping pace with the number of priests the archdiocese is expected to lose over the next decade. The archdiocese says this reality underlies the importance of reorganizing its resources.
This post has been updated with Morning Edition feature content.
This article was originally published on November 15, 2012.
This program aired on November 15, 2012.