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Archdiocese plans to group parishes in large clusters

As priest numbers decline, teams to serve wider area

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / December 1, 2011
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The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston is proposing to reorganize the management of its 290 parishes by creating teams to oversee multiple parishes under a single pastor, in a search for efficiencies that would save money and allow staff to concentrate on the growth of the church.

The plan, to be unveiled Monday at a priest-only meeting with Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, does not call for the closing of more churches. The archdiocese proposes to create about 125 pastoral service teams that, once created, would be free to merge programs among churches and make recommendations to the cardinal about closing and selling churches, rectories, or other buildings.

“This would be something that comes up from the ground, not something imposed’’ by church leaders, said Monsignor William P. Fay, pastor of St. Columbkille in Brighton and cochairman of the Archdiocesan Planning Commission.

The exact number of teams and the way parishes are to be grouped together have not been announced, but most teams would oversee two or three parishes. Each parish would retain its own name and identity, though parishes within a group would probably share some staff members, as well as their pastor.

Church officials said yesterday that the plan would, in time, lead to a reduction in the archdiocese’s roughly 3,000 employees.

The introduction of the plan Monday will kick off months of consultations and fine tuning before any reorganization would be put into effect. If the final plan is approved by O’Malley, the changes would take three to five years to implement, Fay said.

Church closings are a prickly subject in the Boston Archdiocese, which is still dealing with vigil protests at several churches that were closed as part of a merger plan in 2004.

Peter Borre, head of a group of parishioners who are appealing church closings to the Vatican’s highest court, said the new push toward “economies of scale’’ within parish clusters will put some more churches in jeopardy of shutting down.

“Inevitably this will mean recommendations for the closing of surplus churches within the superparish,’’ he said by e-mail.

The reorganization, years in the making, is the archdiocese’s response to a long list of recent challenges: falling Mass attendance, shrinking revenues, a shortage of priests and of lay people willing to serve professionally in the parishes, and the inevitability that pastors are going to be required to take on responsibility for more than one parish, according to a written explanation sent to priests by the archdiocese.

“The present way in which pastoral services are structured in the Archdiocese of Boston is not healthy, and it cannot be sustained much longer,’’ the document reads. Priests are being stretched too thin, and 40 percent of parishes are unable to pay their bills. “By improving pastoral services and reducing the costs for providing these services, every parish can better use its resources and talents for the sake of living and spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’’

The parish teams would include priests, deacons, pastoral associates, and advisory councils, as well as lay ecclesial ministers, who are trained and educated in church teachings but are not ordained. Each team will come up with a plan “for how best to utilize and apportion their resources, property, and facilities’’ to strengthen the parishes, the archdiocese said.

Though the archdiocese has not said how it will group parishes, it will take into account parishes that are near one another. Also, to avoid putting together struggling parishes, the archdiocese will aim to create clusters in which total weekly Mass attendance is above 1,600 people and the total annual offertory is at least $500,000, according to the church documents.

Under the proposed reorganization, church staffs would take on some of the day-to-day duties currently handled by priests, things like coordinating religious education classes or dealing with a broken boiler. That would free pastors to provide the vision to evangelize and expand the church, Fay said.

Thomas Groome, chairman of the Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, said of the reorganization plan: “No matter how we spin it, this is trying to address the priest shortage in creative ways.

“What’s the step after this?’’ Groome said. “The numbers are continuing to dwindle.’’

Faced with shrinking ranks of priests, other Catholic dioceses are already shifting some traditional duties of priests to lay people, he said.

“We think of the job of the pastor as saying the liturgy,’’ Groome said. “But who visits the sick? Counsels the bereaved? Who works with young people preparing for marriage?

“In the work of a priest, 10 percent of his time, if that, is spent in sacramental ministry,’’ he said. “An awful lot of a priest’s work could be done by a well-trained lay person.’’

In addition to its upcoming meeting with clergy, the Boston Archdiocese is planning to hold 10 regional meetings to hear from parishioners, probably in February and March, Fay said.

The archdiocese also plans to establish a website to post documents related to the proposal.

After four to six months of consultation, the implementation of the plan could begin next year.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.

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