Springfield diocese launches process to shut down parishes

.- The Diocese of Springfield has launched a process to help determine which churches should close given demographic shifts and the shortage of priests. But, according to the Boston Globe, diocesan officials have learned from the nightmare that occurred in the Archbishop of Boston in 2004 and appear determined to avoid the same situation.

Archbishop Sean O'Malley's decision nearly two years ago in 2004 to close nearly one in six churches in the Archdiocese of Boston triggered lawsuits and occupation of church buildings as parishioners refused to let their churches be closed.

In Springfield, church officials are seeking input from parishioners and lay Catholic leaders, as well as from those outside the church, as they decide how to reorganize the diocese. They are holding a Web chat to get the input of parishioners, and they plan to close parishes slowly.

This week, the diocese plans to hold a two-hour live online chat, during which Catholics can question Fr. John Bonzagni, who is in charge of the reorganization.

Church officials have commissioned a study by the University of Massachusetts to be overseen by the dean of the graduate school, John R. Mullin. A doctoral candidate is studying the diocese as if it was a business and will recommend which churches should stay open and which should close.

A 13-member committee of mostly lay Catholics will review the report and conduct its own research, culminating in a recommendation to Bishop Timothy McDonnell of Springfield.

The diocese's proposal will also be presented to local parishes for their input. Once decisions are made, church closings and mergers will take place gradually as priests retire or are moved to other churches. Fr. Bonzagni said that at this point, it's not clear how long the process will take. The diocese plans to create a local appeals process for churches slated to be closed.

A 2005 tally of worshippers in every church in the diocese found that about one in three Catholics in the diocese attends church, about the same as the national average.

However, in the next five years, the diocese may lose as many as one-third of its active priests due to retirement.

In Springfield, diocesan officials say many of the changes will probably take place in the region's urban parishes. And the smallest churches in the diocese are not necessarily those most likely to close. Many of the parishes with the lowest attendance are located in rural areas, and it they closed local Catholics would have to drive many miles to attend church.

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