While a decree from the Vatican held that three churches in the Diocese of Springfield should not be closed, a canon lawyer who analyzed the ruling said that the document leaves open the possibility that the churches can still be shut down if proper procedure is followed.
Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of Springfield sought “immediate clarification” about the decree from Cardinal Mauro Piacenza of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, the diocese said on Feb. 16.
Officials at the congregation told CNA that they could not immediately respond to requests for comment on the case and that replies to inquiries would only come through official channels.
The congregation upheld the diocese’s decision to merge St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Adams, and two parishes in Chicopee, Mass.—St. George and St. Patrick—with other local parishes. However, the congregation said that sufficiently grave reason was not given to close each of the church buildings and they should be used in some manner as determined by the bishop.
The diocese stressed that in each instance the parish itself is not being reestablished and any permitted use of the church buildings “will not be the same as when it was a parish church.”
The congregation “seems to be undertaking a new application of Church law,” the diocese said. In the diocese’s view, the circumstances in the three disputed cases were consistent with its reasoning in the case of another diocesan church whose closure was upheld.
Denver-area canon lawyer J.D. Flynn, evaluating the case for CNA, emphasized the immense complexity of such rulings.
According to Flynn, the decree affirmed that the bishop followed appropriate procedures to merge the parishes. However, the procedures were not followed in closing churches like St. Stanislaus Kostka.
“The Holy See admitted that there may have been grave reason to close the church (relegate it to profane use) but expressed that doing so requires observing canonical procedure,” he commented. “I'm not sure that is news.”
The “grave reasons” required to close a church were not provided in the documentation, and so the documentation is judged to be insufficient.
“But the Holy See leaves open the possibility that pastoral reasons exists to relegate the church to profane use, according to the proper procedure,” Flynn said.
Some Massachusetts Catholics have interpreted the ruling differently.
Peter Borre of the Council of Parishes, which is opposing church closures, characterized the ruling as “a major win,” according to the Boston Globe.
Over 200 of the former parishioners of St. Stanislaus Kostka have been conducting a round-the-clock prayer vigil since December 2008.
Laurie Haas of Adams said the parishioners “look forward to a respectful dialogue with Bishop McDonnell in an effort to bring our vigil to a conclusion and to reopen St. Stan’s church in a manner that will best serve the interests of the Catholic Community of Adams, as well as the Diocese of Springfield.”
Under canon law a parish and a church are defined as separate entities, Flynn explained. While a parish is “a stable community of the faithful,” a church is a sacred building designated for divine worship where the faithful have “the right of entry.”
The two types of entities are opened and closed by different procedures and involve different consultations.
“For me,” Flynn continued, “the real reminder here is that our buildings are truly sacred spaces, set aside for the worship of God. That is why canon law takes them so seriously.”
The Vatican ruling “is not an indictment of the bishop, it is really a technical issue—but it does remind us how important sacred worship, and respect for our sacred places, really is.”
The diocese noted that the Congregation for the Clergy upheld other decisions to merge other parishes and close the former parish churches.
With reporting by Alan Holdren in Rome.