Cardinal O’Malley approves reorganization of Boston archdiocese

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, says he has formally accepted a major reorganization plan that would group the archdiocese’s 288 parishes into about 135 clusters, or “collaboratives,” and assign a team of priests, staff, and lay leaders to each.

O’Malley, who said the plan was intended to reenergize the church, made the announcement at a news conference this afternoon, but church officials did not announce details on how the parishes would be clustered. They said they would alert pastors in coming days about the plans for their parishes.

O’Malley said change is difficult, but the transition would be done gradually and with lots of training and preparation.

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“We have a very big task ahead of us,” said Monsignor William Fay, who led the commission that drew up the reorganization plan. But, he said, “I am convinced it will work.”

With Mass attendance a fraction of what it once was, almost a third of parishes operating in the red, and the pool of priests aging and shrinking, the plan is an acknowledgment that the church can no longer afford to operate as it once did, with each parish assigned one or more priests, plus its own staff and lay councils.

The new plan, which would be implemented in stages and take years to be fully operational, is meant to strengthen parishes by helping them run more efficiently. The hope is that, in the long term, they can recover their strength and grow.

It is also a pointed effort to conserve scarce resources without closing churches, which the archdiocese did eight years ago in what turned out to be a public relations disaster. Under the new plan, each parish would keep its name, assets and debts, property, and income.

Over the past two years, the commission of priests, staff, and lay leaders appointed by O’Malley struggled to figure out which parishes would work well together, based on proximity, size, and other factors. The panel has refined the proposal in response to feedback from surveys, meetings, and informal conversations throughout the archdiocese.

Church leaders have said they believe the new approach has won the confidence of the vast majority of clergy and lay leaders. Two-thirds of the lay parish and finance council members polled by the archdiocese in a survey earlier this year said that the new concept takes the church in the right direction.

But the results of that survey also suggested that many are not on board yet. A substantial minority of lay leaders — almost 17 percent — said it would take the church in the wrong direction, and many registered concern about how priests would be assigned to the collaboratives.

The plan would mean big changes at every level of the archdiocese. Congregations that hardly know each other would have to learn to work closely together; staff would have to learn new ways of working together; priests would have to do their jobs differently and many used to working independently would have to get used to being part of a team.