Radical Reshuffling of Boston Archdiocese Revisited

Our last post about the a rumored Vatican document in the works on reorganization of U.S. dioceses prompted so many insightul comments that we felt it was worth a follow-up post.

Earlier this month, BCI discussed an AP story published in the Boston Globe and other newspapers about a “radical reshuffling” of the archdiocese at a parish level planned for the not-too-distant future. There were a few things the folks at 66 Brooks Drive thought were not explained exactly right in the mainstream media article, so they clarified them. For your edification and reading pleasure, here are the clarifications and then some of our perspectives.

From The Boston Pilot (June 10, 2011), “Archdiocesan pastoral planning a work in progress, says official“:

BRAINTREE — Father David Couturier, Director of Pastoral Planning for the Archdiocese of Boston, responded June 8 to recent media reports about a possible reorganization of the archdiocese’s parishes.

An Associated Press story, released on June 3, asserted that the archdiocese was considering “reshuffling” their 291 parishes into 80 to 120 clusters. Each group would be supported by collective resources and clergy personnel.

“But it’s not the reshuffling of parishes, it’s a reshuffling or a reorganization of those who serve the parishes.” said Father Couturier. “Those 80-120 groups are the staffing of those parishes, not the parishes themselves.”

“The article seems to indicate that the 291 parishes suddenly become 80-120 parishes, that’s not what we’re looking at,” he added.

Msgr. William Fay, co-chair of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission, stressed that the idea is still being explored and is not in a recommendation stage. Msgr. Fay made his comments on the June 8 broadcast of The Good Catholic Life, a local radio show on 1060AM WQOM.

In February, Cardinal O’Malley formed the Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission that will make a final recommendation to him on a plan for the parishes of the archdiocese. The 18 member commission consists of priests, deacons, religious sisters, and laity from around the archdiocese.

“What we’re trying to do is to develop first, a mission plan. This is not primarily about reorganization, it is a plan for positioning the archdiocese to be able to live out its mission in the 21st Century,” said Father Couturier.

“The cardinal has charged us with coming up with ideas about what can be and should be the mission of the archdiocese as we face incredible challenges and limited resources going forward.”

Father Couturier said that they have been “working intensely” with consulting laity and that the cardinal has met with priests of the archdiocese in vicariate, or regional, meetings. Meetings have also been held with parish pastoral associates.

He also said that online surveys have been established to gather comments on strategic priorities.

“All of that material was collected and put into some working models, but they’re working models” said Father Couturier.

“We’re still working through the models. We have lots of challenges to face and we want to do this in the most accountable and transparent way,” he said.

We had several reactions to this after reading the article:

First, we think the idea of a mission plan as a starting point for the effort is an excellent one, though we still have questions about the membership on the committee, as we said previously.

Secondly, we like surveys and would love for BCI readers to be able to provide input toward strategic priorities for the archdiocese! We must have missed the press release about the surveys as part of the open and transparent process the archdiocese has in place for this effort. If someone from the archdiocese would like more input toward strategic priorities, please give us a holler and send us the URL, as we would be glad to promote the survey if it is still open and help you get as much input as possible right away.

Thirdly, it sounds like there is a lot of work being done with working models. With all the work being done with working models, we would urge everyone working on this from the archdiocese to learn as much as possible from what has or has not worked in the working models of other dioceses, such as Camden, NJ, where Mass attendance has dropped dramatically after they embarked on a round of parish consolidation. This April 11, 2011 article from the Philadephia Enquirer reported:

In the fall of 2006, a year and a half before Galante announced that he planned to reduce the number of parishes by more than a third, the annual fall Mass count was 114,000 parishioners. Last fall, the count dropped below 100,000 in the diocese, which stretches across southern New Jersey.

BCI hears from sources in Camden that they worked hard on their working models, but in the end, as many as 30-40% of Catholics are apparently not moving to the new parishes. Coincidentally, Mass attendance in Boston dropped after “reconfiguration.”

Fortunately, the new planning efforts in Boston are intended to avoid closing parishes, but rather will be grouping parishes and considering a new model for a shared “pastoral service team” across that group of parishes.  That stands in contrast to a plan which would have involved “mergers,” where several parishes would have been brought together with at least one or more being closed or “suppressed,” and then one new parish entity would have been created with all of the assets and resources from the previous parishes now belonging to the new parish, which would have represented a new canonical entity.

The concept for this shared pastoral service team across a group of parishes was described in more detail by Msgr. Fay on the radio program, The Good Catholic Life on June 8.

The commission has been getting a sense of the direction they should move in with a first step. They have been taking great care with the future. They created a working paper for themselves to react to. they’re trying to imagine what the whole parochial life will look like. In the past, the archdiocese looked from the parish level, such as how many parishes we need. But now they’re looking at the people serving the parishes and look at them as teams. How ought they ensure the parishes have what they need as they are?

One of the ideas in this working paper is to staff 80-120 pastoral service teams who would each serve 204 parishes. Msgr. Fay wants to make clear this is not a recommendation they’re making yet, but they’re exploring it. Every parish needs a pastor, but how will we have enough pastors for all the parishes we have. There are 291 parishes. Should we have less, based on the number of pastors we will have? Or is it possible for a pastor to be a pastor of 2 or 3 or 4 parishes, supported by a host of people who would be responsible for the parishes. Some of the team would be parochial vicars or retired priests or religious or priests in education. There would be deacons, lay associates, catechists and more. They would be responsible for putting together a pastoral plan for their parishes. The key would be to bring the parishes together in a creative way. Perhaps they don’t need multiple religious education programs or multiple business managers. It’s up to the team to see how best they would work in the parishes. They might even make a recommendation to come together as one parish, not as imposed from above, but coming from among those in the parishes themselves.

This is not about consolidating 291 parishes into 80 to 120 parishes. Msgr. Fay said it was about pastoral teams and no parish was envisioned as closing. That number of 80 to 120 was purposefully small as well in order to engender as much discussion as possible.

You can’t say that one parish must forfeit assets to help a parish in the grouping that is struggling. Canon law would not allow it. They’re not combining the assets of all the parishes. However, where a parish in the past might have been able to afford a particular staff, maybe three parishes could.

Scot said some people are asking whether this pastoral plan will be “Reconfiguraton II,” referring to the process back in 2004. How did that inform the process of the pastoral planning commission. Msgr. Fay said the project of 2004 was a kind of downsizing, saying we can’t maintain what we have. From the beginning people realized we couldn’t have 350+ parishes. The difference today is that they don’t want to get caught up in that question. The key issue here is to ask how we’re going to bring ourselves together to focus on evangelization and use the resources we have in the future, becoming the prism by which we look forward as opposed to asking how we’re going to hang on. He finds it to be optimistic and it gives him hope and enlivens his desire to be a priest here in the future.

Msgr. Fay said it’s their hope that as parishes group there will be real excitement and hope to grow further and become vibrant communities. The key element is the pastoral plan for the future life of the parish by the pastoral team for the life of the parish for 2, 4, and 6 years and more. There will be more than 100 local pastoral plans that tie into the archdiocesan pastoral plan. It won’t be one-size-fits-all.

There is much work still to be done. A multitude of issues need to be thought through. Just one example of the canonical conundrum is the canonical requirement that each parish have its own Finance Council. But if there is one pastor for 4 parishes, making him attend 4 separate Finance Council meetings means additional workload and stress, not greater efficiency.  Initial concepts under discussion may not find their way to a final recommendation or implementation. Though BCI has voiced our concerns about the membership of the archdiocesan pastoral planning committee previously, what we have seen of their work to date appears to be thoughtful and not rushed.

Responsibility for the future of the archdiocese does not just rest on a committee, as several readers expressed yesterday. More on that topic next time.

2 Responses to Radical Reshuffling of Boston Archdiocese Revisited

  1. Gabriel Austin says:

    Am I missing something here? Are there no plans for prayer? No recourse to God? Or is this too old-fashioned an idea?

  2. Boston Blackey says:

    Amen to Gabriel’s comment.

    This whole reshuffling approach sounds like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The Archdiocese needs strong, prayerful leadership that is unafraid of the leftwing and dedicated to the Trus missin of our Church. Was it not Cardinal Ratzinger who said that Truth was not decided by a majority vote?

    If there are folks in today’s Church who want a place at the altar for practicing gays, let them hie themselves to the Episcopal Church, or what is left of it.

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