Over the past few decades, dioceses throughout the United States have been faced with tough decisions surrounding church closures. The factors behind such closures are often quite complex. In some instances, changing demographics have seen Catholics move from the inner-city to the suburbs. Even where the demographics have remained relatively stable, church attendance has sometimes sagged to levels at which parishes are no longer economically viable. The decline of vocations to the priesthood and religious life has thinned the pool of available ministers to attend the sacramental and pastoral needs of a parish. And, increasingly, the economic downturn and costs associated with clergy sexual abuse have wrought realignment of Catholic parishes.
These closures, no matter how well they are done, are painful processes. Ties to one's parish can be very strong, since they often include generations of baptisms, weddings, funerals, and the experience of ordinary parish life. The picture gets more complicated still when parochial schools are involved. As a result, attempts to close parishes and liquidate church assets are often met with anger and resistance.
Such is the case in the Archdiocese of Boston, where seven years ago Cardinal Sean O'Malley announced the closure of six churches in and around Boston. Parishioners, angered by the move, have staged ongoing vigils in several of the churches since 2004. This week, the Boston Globe ran the story of several of these parishes. Though some of the vigils have ceased, others have continued ever since the initial closing. That is almost 2,500 days of prayer sit-ins, manned by rotating members of the parish. Though Mass is no longer held in the churches, they come together to hold prayer services. Somewhat paradoxically, the closure has had the impact of forging communal ties:
“I think some of us used to sit in the same side of the church,’’ [one vigil attendee] said. “But we didn’t all know each other until all this began.’’
The parishioner leading the protest, in words surely common wherever a parish is closed, said: "This is our church", and "We're still here, and we're not going anywhere."
At least in the short term, this appears to be the case. This week, Cardinal O'Malley is expected to issue a decree de-classifying the buildings as religious structures, a move which opens the door for the assets of these former parishes to be sold. The vigil-holding parishioners are expected to appeal the decision to the Vatican, and the churches cannot be liquidated until the appeal is resolved -- an outcome that may take another few years. In other dioceses, parishioners have won such appeals, though the outcome is far from certain. (And, in related news, the Vatican last week announced a "visitation" of the Diocese of Cleveland, aimed in part at probing the proposed closure of some fifty churches in the diocese.)
The reaction from the Archdiocese of Boston to the vigils has also been noteworthy. Their official spokesman, Terrence Donilon, remarked that although archdiocese did not want to "drag people out,"
"There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It’s time to move on.’’ Donilon continued that, “Some of these churches are saying they don’t even need a priest to be connected to the archdiocese,’’ [but] “that’s not how the Catholic Church works, and these people are not living the full Catholic experience.’’
Bracketing the merits of Donilon's assertions about the "full Catholic experience" and a parish's tie to a diocese running through a priest, his comments raise an important question -- and not just for Boston. Given that parish closures seem set to continue in many different places, and given the dearth of people to staff them, what will future Catholic parish life in the United States look like?