Vigil Vigilance

October 9, 2010

In our recent post, Chancellor Spills Beans, about how Chancellor Jim McDonough let slip word a week ago about a future wave of parish consolidation, we said we would cover this topic in more detail, and now that we have gotten all of our facts straight, we are pleased to resume today.

Before we get into plans for future “re-reconfiguration” of parishes, we want to answer questions about why vigils in shuttered parishes are still taking place today.  Given the total cost in the archdiocese’s annual reports for “maintaining the remaining suppressed properties” adds up to more than $10 million over recent years and $1.5 million in 2009 alone, we thought you might want to know what the archdiocese could have done previously (but did not) to end the vigils sooner, and what the archdiocese can still do today (but is not).

At $1.5 million per year in cost in the annual report (whose actual disposition we cannot yet fully determine), that comes to about $4,100 per day in expense to “maintain” these properties.  Who is it in the archdiocese that would advocate continuing to spend that money or would oppose decisive action to halt the red-ink?  Hang on a minute—we will get there.

The need to close as many as 60 parishes was publicly disclosed by Cardinal Law back in 1998 to address long-standing issues of declining Mass attendance and declining numbers of priests–well before the financial crunch and sexual abuse crisis hit the Church.  That all went on hold for several years, so by 2004-2006, Chancery people and pastors in parishes all knew that reconfiguration was essential, even though few people may have been willing to say so publicly.

Closings and Vigils in 2004-2005

Most closings happened peacefully in 2004-2005, but vigils sprang up at a handful of parishes–St. James the Great in Wellesley, St Jeremiah in Framingham, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Boston, St. Frances X. Cabrini in Scituate, and St. Therese in Everett. The vigils started in late 2004 when the archdiocese announced plans to shut 66 parishes, and these five churches have been occupied by parishioners who protested the parish closings by refusing to leave the buildings. The occupancies have been largely staffed by people who were not known to be very active in the parish prior to the decision to close the parish. (By coincidence, some of the suburban vigil protesters might just happen to have property abutting the church and just may have not kept secret their desire to avoid Chapter 40B affordable housing next-door if and when those church properties were redeveloped). The last stage possible of their canonical appeals was exhausted in July, when the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court, rejected canon law appeals from supporters of nine closed parishes (five of which maintained vigils).

Why have the vigils gone on so long?  Why were they not broken up shortly after they started?  Back in 2004-05, Cardinal O’Malley was advised by pastors, lawyers, real estate people and canon lawyers to end the vigils through a structured conflict resolution process that included requiring people to leave immediately. (That did not mean the churchs would have been sold or canonical appeals denied–it just meant that occupied vigils would have ended).  There was one person who advised differently.

Fr. Bryan Hehir said that he knew more about these things from when he was at Harvard in 1969 and saw what happened during the Harvard student occupation of the University Hall administration building.  [The April 1969 protest was organized by the Harvard chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) primarily over the escalating war in Vietnam,  and protesters demanded Harvard end its Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. Though the demonstrators had forcibly removed administrators and staff from the building and vowed non-violent resistance when they occupied the building, they started to air private personnel files they found inside, so in the early hours of April 10th, 1969, university administrators called in city and state police.  The cops used billy clubs and mace to remove the demonstrators, and the results were not pretty.  Note: by coincidence, we discovered that the SDS used the same “clenched fist” symbol of resistance/unity that Caritas Christi uses in their new branding and advertising, which coincidentally was developed by the advertising firm run by Jack Connors’ son, John Connors, Jr. But we digress].

Regardless, here we were 35 years later in 2004 instead of the ‘60s, with a different problem, and an entirely different generation and circumstance. We are told from several sources that the incredibly persuasive Fr. Hehir dusted off his memories from 1969 and managed to convince Cardinal O’Malley and others that the parish occupations would end of their own lack of steam within six weeks–and if another more active approach was taken, the Archbishop of Boston might end up lambasted on the front pages of the Boston Globe and New York Times.

As we all know by now, there are three things this archdiocese dreads—lawsuits, loss of money, and bad publicity.  Apparently Cardinal  O’Malley listened to Fr. Hehir, and the vigils were allowed to peacefully proceed.  We are told that Cardinal O’Malley, along with Fr. Hehir and Ann Carter of PR firm Rasky Baerlein, then drafted his November 2004 letter to everyone in the archdiocese in which he said, “At times I ask God to call me home and let someone else finish this job.”

The letter, of course, went over like a lead balloon.  Many priests were upset because they were ready and willing to work on parish closings due to sheer necessity and were on the front lines doing so, but they did not see the commitment matched higher up in the archdiocesan food-chain. (Cardinal O’Malley tried to recover from that letter  in 2006 and 2008 Boston Globe interviews).  As we said previously, the rest of the closings ultimately proceeded as smoothly as could be expected, though some were revisited and revised by the Meade-Eisner Commission.

2010 Vigil Situation

So, here we sit in 2010 not merely six weeks after the vigils started but at six years later.  The decree from the Apostolic Signature was announced on July 15.  That was 86 days ago.  In mid-September, the Boston Globe reported that the Archdiocese was calling meetings with the vigil leaders to try and peacefully end the remaining vigils.  (Note to archdiocese: sending Jim McDonough out to Our Lady of Mount Carmel does not seem to have moved the proverbial peanut forward at all.  If the archdiocese had paid attention to the “F-bombs” the Chancellor drops in most meetings except those including the Cardinal or reached out to the anonymous bloggers here at Boston Catholic Insider, we could have told them to send someone else before they wasted the opportunity and set themselves back. Do yourselves a favor and do not have the Chancellor meet with any more vigil groups.)

What to do now?

One simple recommendation for the vigils is already in the grasp of the archdiocese.  In case Vicar General Fr. Richard Erikson, Cardinal O’Malley, and others responsible for ending the vigils have now been deluded by Fr. Hehir into thinking that this is still a time for putative dialogue, let this blog be on the record as saying we think that is the wrong approach.  It is time to simply say that no one may come into the building.  Anyone inside is free to stay, but no one and nothing may enter the building now.  That is how the archdiocese prevented all the attempted vigils after St. Jeremiah in Framingham started in 2005, and it is a civilized, non-confrontational, responsible way to deal with them.

The proverbial “vigil-meter” is running.  86 days at $4,100/day (based on 2009 annual report, unless the archdiocese corrects that number for us), which means about $350,000 in unnecessary cost that could be put toward the Clergy Retirement Fund or other pastoral works of the Church. (Yes, we know that some of this money is being spent on other things that we cannot wrap our hands around.  And yes, we know that the cost does not drop to zero the moment the vigil occupants leave.  But, the buildings need to be secured and the properties prepared for sale, and that all cannot happen while people are still occupying them).  We all know that the buildings could not be sold until the canonical appeals had finished, but the cost to “maintain the suppressed properties” IS under the control of the archdiocese.

In the Cardinal’s 2004 letter, he said, “If difficult decisions are not made now, the mission of the Church will be seriously compromised in the future.”   Start with the “difficult decision” to end the vigils.  Then you might want to also look at some “difficult decisions” in Cabinet leadership.  Does anyone else agree this is the time for “difficult decisions” in order to assure the mission of the Catholic Church in Boston for the future?

Best wishes for a blessed weekend.

ps. Please note an urgent prayer request.  We just received word that the young daughter of a local Catholic family has just died and been brought home to God.  Please pray for them.

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