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Globe Editorial

O’Malley’s decision should end dispute over closing parishes

July 23, 2011

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THEY HAVE been praying for a miracle for more than six years. It didn’t happen, and now it’s time to face reality.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley is finally moving to sell six long-shuttered churches belonging to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. It’s a sad outcome for those committed to their old parish communities, but simple economics makes it inevitable.

The process started in 2004 and 2005, when the archdiocese reduced the number of parishes in response to financial problems, a shortage of priests, and falling attendance. Some outraged parishioners fought the closings, maintaining protest vigils at several churches and appealing O’Malley’s decision all the way to Rome. Last year, the Vatican rejected the appeals, and this month O’Malley announced he is removing the sacred standing of the church buildings. As he primes the buildings for sale and redevelopment, the cardinal is asking protesters to accept that it is time to move on.

And it is, despite the undeniable anguish of those losing their spiritual homes. All institutions, including churches and the leaders who run them, must adapt to changing times in order to survive.

In the 1960s, the 400 parishes and 1500 priests of the Archdiocese of Boston served some 2 million Catholics, including 150,000 children in parochial school. Today, there are 290 parishes and 700 priests, some 200 of whom are retired. While the population of Catholics is down only slightly - to 1.8 million - the number of children in parochial schools has dropped by more than two-thirds.

Over the last decade, the clergy sexual abuse scandal stirred bitter feelings that still linger. Today, some Catholics suspect the projected sale of churches will help pay for legal settlements that arose out of the scandal. But church officials insist that any money made will be placed in a fund to help other parishes. The faithful can only hope the cardinal and his people will carry out that vow.

O’Malley did show patience throughout the long, drawn-out appeal process. During the six to seven years since the closing of the parishes, he waited for resolution of the appeals and dispatched personal representatives to talk to disgruntled parishioners. Still angry and unsatisfied, some Catholics are threatening to start the appeal process all over again. As they mull their options, they should accept that the answer to some prayers is no.