Evangelization described as key in Boston parish restructuring

Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston Massachusetts Credit Matthew Dailey via Flickrcom CC BY NC 20 CNA US Catholic News 4 11 13 Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston, Massachusetts. | Matthew Dailey via Flickr.com (CC BY-NC 2.0).

After a long period of struggle in finances and church attendance, a new pastoral plan in the Boston archdiocese emphasizes evangelization while encouraging parishes to share their resources

"Restructuring and evangelization must be absolutely tied to one another so that we don't get back into the mindset of 'we stabilize by downsizing,'" Father Paul Soper, the Archdiocese of Boston's director of Pastoral Planning, told CNA Aug. 16.

"There's no need for that. That would only be necessary if the Spirit were not still at work in the Church."

The archdiocese's "Disciples in Mission" pastoral plan organizes parishes into "collaboratives" typically of three parishes each. Though each parish remains independent with its own financial assets and responsibilities, these collaboratives share resources including one pastor, one pastoral team, and a pastoral plan.

The first collaboratives began on June 4 with 28 parishes in 12 groups. The restructuring is in part intended to address financial shortfalls.

About 40 percent of the archdiocese's 288 parishes cannot meet their operating expenses solely through the offertory. Since 1990, 125 parishes have closed in the archdiocese, with 65 closing in 2004.

Sharing and strengthening the Catholic faith is the primary goal.

Fr. Soper said that the pastoral plain aims to have every parish in the archdiocese "become a strong, stable, effective and intentional center of the new evangelization," Fr. Soper said. "Parish-based evangelization works, and we can train for it, but we need strong parishes in order to do so."

Without training, Fr. Soper said, "evangelization can way too easily become theoretical."

"A parish looks at a long document, adopts a mission statement, and says 'okay, well this is our mission.' But then never does anything about it."

Practical steps for evangelization include one new program that aims to train dozens of parishioners at each parish how to give witness talks. These are "audible, brief and Christocentric" speeches about three minutes in length in which individual Catholics talk about "their relationship with Jesus."

Fr. Soper said these talks aim to address significant questions: "What is it about my relationship with Jesus that draws me to him? Why am I Catholic? Why do I keep returning to the sacraments? What's my life like when I'm not in relationship with Jesus? If I've had a big conversion experience in my life, what was my life like before and what was it like afterward?"

This training helps in reaching non-Catholics and in deepening parish spiritual life. Some who have gone though the training give talks to parents of children preparing for First Communion.

This means parents experience their own peers and fellow lay Catholics "telling them about Jesus and about how they love the Lord."

The Boston archdiocese's approach emphasizes the belief that "radical hospitality" plays a major role in evangelization to reach those Catholics who rarely attend Mass or are not involved in church. Long-serving pastors estimate that at least five percent of Sunday massgoers are not known to them.

"The people, the 'lost', are coming to Mass, they're just not staying," Fr. Soper said. "Their experience there is not drawing them to stay."

The archdiocese's anonymous visitor program aims to help parishes improve to help draw these people back.

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A pastor can request an anonymous visitor to attend a parish Mass and report their experience. Visitors evaluate the parish spirit in terms of whether the people were welcoming, how they treated disturbances like noisy children or cell phones, and whether the church was clean.

The visitor considers how the parish responds to newly registered parishioners and whether the parish thanks those who donate with checks.

Even the parish website, voice mail system and receptionist practices are examined for whether they are helpful for newcomers.

The visitor's initial report provides pastors with "early measureables" to plan improvements before a follow-up visitor repeats the examination.

The pastoral plan emphasizes a "huge amount of training" in areas like leadership, theology and the practices of new evangelization. Pastors, parochial vicars, deacons, parish councils and pastoral teams are among those who go through specialized training.

Part of the training involves the Pennsylvania-based Catholic Leadership Institute, which has done leadership training and consulting for more than 75 U.S. dioceses.

Dan Cellucci, the Catholic Leadership Institute's vice-president of learning and curriculum, said his organization trains leaders in smart goal-setting, planning and time management, interpersonal skills, how to run a meeting, and how to recruit administrators, staffers and volunteers.

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The consolidation of staff and some programs can create problems, he told CNA in an Aug. 15 interview.

"Just from a human resources standpoint, you're trying to cover a lot of ground with fewer people. That's always a challenge," Cellucci said.

"On the other hand, it really does force people to make sure that they do know what is important. You can be more responsible with resources and maybe do more and think about things in a different way by looking at a different model for administering."

Cellucci saw great promise in the archdiocese's plan, noting that "all the churches are staying open, maintaining the unique identity of each parish, but also coming to a collaborative spirit."

"They really understand that they are not doing this to constrict, to get smaller," he added. "They're doing this to move toward evangelization, to move toward outreach."

"They're keeping these parishes open because the idea is to go out and get more people to come to these parishes."

Both Cellucci and Fr. Soper stressed the importance of broad consultation with the clergy, staff and people of archdiocesan parishes before making significant changes.

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