Short on priests and faithful, Boston archdiocese considers parish mergers

3 8 2010 OMalley Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley

On Feb. 2, the Archdiocese of Boston announced plans for a reorganization that could change how many parishes operate. The changes are aimed at allowing the Church to cope with declining Mass attendance and a shortage of priests, without forcing parishes to close.

“The Archdiocese has been operating under a model decades old that was built for a time when 70 percent of Catholics attended Mass regularly,” archdiocesan spokesman Terry Donilon told CNA. “Today less than 20 percent attend weekly Mass in the Archdiocese.”

These numbers call for what Donilon described as a “total rebuild of the archdiocese,” likely to include mergers between several parish communities.

The newly-formed Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission hopes it can avoid some of the more drastic measures it has resorted to in the past. Vicar General Fr. Richard M. Erikson told the Boston Globe that the archdiocese did not plan to initiate another round of church closings, as it did in the wake of the 2002 sex-abuse scandals and resulting lawsuits.

Instead, the planning commission will consider how to combine a number of church communities – which currently function as independent parishes – into single parishes that would continue to worship in separate spaces.

The combined communities would keep their buildings, while merging into one single parish for administrative, financial, and pastoral purposes. This plan could eliminate inefficient aspects of the current system, in which one priest often already serves as the pastor of multiple parishes simultaneously, due to the priest shortage.

Although the archdiocese is already taking steps to recruit more priests and boost Mass attendance,
these longer-term strategies cannot address some of the immediate challenges posed by stark demographic realities.

Statistics from the archdiocese indicate that 40 percent of its parishes are barely meeting their financial needs or operating at a loss, while the number of active diocesan priests is expected to diminish by nearly half – from around 400, to only 180 – by 2021. Mass attendance in Boston dropped by 23 percent between 2000 and 2009.

“We approach our work cognizant of the challenges and opportunities facing the Archdiocese of Boston and inspired by the grace of God’s presence throughout,” said Msgr. William Fay, a Brighton-based pastor who will co-chair the Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission.

The commission has begun discussing a draft plan for reorganization, although it has not yet set a timetable for making its recommendations to Boston's Cardinal Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley.

“The Cardinal has authorized us to shape a plan that will provide the local Church with a roadmap for the future,” Msgr. Fay said. He anticipated the development and implementation of “a plan that supports the good work of our priests and which invigorates parish life.”

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