Signs of the Times

Boston’s Archbishop Closes 47 Parishes

In mid-November Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., of Boston put the properties of 16 closed parishes up for sale but gave six parishes that were slated to close an extension on their closing date. He also issued a letter to all Catholics of the archdiocese explaining that the draconian measures he has taken are the result of declining Mass attendance, the priest shortage and financial troubles that are worse than most people realize.

In the wake of the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy, which has enveloped the archdiocese since early in 2002, the archdiocese has suffered a 50 percent loss in income, he said. He also cited a growing shortage of priests, contrasting the number of 50 to 60 ordinations yearly a half-century ago with the seven ordained this year. Over 100 of our present pastors are in their 70’s or 80’s, he wrote. If difficult decisions are not made now, the mission of the church will be seriously compromised in the future.


In May, at the end of a five-month planning process, Archbishop O’Malley announced that 70 of the 357 parishes in the archdiocese would be closed. After some changes were made in the plan since then, 47 parishes had been closed by mid-November; and the revised reconfiguration plan will leave a total of 83 parishes and 67 churches closed. Of the other 16 churches, eight will serve new parishes created in the reconfiguration and eight will remain open as worship sites operated by a neighboring parish.

The closings have met resistance on a number of fronts. By early November parishioners in seven closed parishes and one slated for closing were staging round-the-clock protest sit-ins. The archdiocese has generally allowed the sit-ins to continue peacefully, saying it is committed to dialogue.

But Eugene Sweeney, 69, was arrested at Immaculate Conception Church in Winchester when he refused to leave the church following its closing Mass on Nov. 6. He was the only parishioner who stayed; and the pastor, Father Thomas Foley, said he asked police to remove Sweeney because he was concerned about his safety if he stayed in the church alone. The archdiocese said that decision represented the pastor’s personal judgment, not a change in archdiocesan policy. On Nov. 15 the archdiocese informed prosecutors it did not wish to press charges against Sweeney.

Archbishop O’Malley’s letter was released on Nov. 13, two days after he met with 18 priests whose parishes were scheduled to close by mid-January. The archbishop told them the decisions to close would not be reversed, but he offered them an opportunity to postpone the closing date. Within the next several days, after consulting with their parishes or parish advisory bodies, at least six pastors requested an extension.

In a press release on Nov. 15, the archdiocese announced that it was putting 16 parish properties up for sale. Five brokerage companies, among whom the properties are divided, are to solicit offers for at least 90 days and submit them to the archdiocesan real estate office and its advisory committee for their recommendations. David Smith, chancellor of the archdiocese, said he will review those recommendations and forward them with his suggestions to the archbishop, who will make final decisions in consultation with his finance council and college of consultors and, if necessary, the Holy See.

Pending completion of a long-term strategic financial plan, proceeds from the property sales will be used only to fund reconfiguration expenses and those specific archdiocesan budget items recommended by the finance council, Smith said. The Pilot, Boston’s archdiocesan newspaper, is to carry a disclosure of those expenditures each month.

In his letter of Nov. 13, Archbishop O’Malley said he understands that he must do a better job explaining the reasons for reconfiguration. The sexual abuse settlements have been paid in great part by the sale of the archbishop’s residence and adjacent property, as well as by insurance, but the scandal caused a 50 percent reduction of annual income, he wrote.

Subsidies to poor parishes, ethnic apostolates, formation programs and Catholic schools are all affected. Many parishes are unable to pay their bills. The pension plans for laity and clergy are in danger, he continued. Some people think that reconfiguration will mean a great surplus of money for the archdiocese. Unfortunately, this is not true.

I know this process has been very painful, especially for communities which taken alone seem viable.’ However, the truth is that no parish can be taken alone, for all parishes are part of the Archdiocese of Boston and thus are related to one another.... Viability must be seen not at the parish level but at the level of the whole archdiocese, he wrote.

The archbishop also described his personal anguish over the parish closings, calling it the hardest thing I have ever had to do in 40 years of religious life.... The process is not easy, it is not perfect, but the dire circumstances we are in demand this reconfiguration.

He said several years of depressed investment earnings, which have hurt pension and retirement accounts nationwide, have left the archdiocese with an unfunded pension liability of $80 million. The archdiocese’s operating budget has been slashed by $14 million over the past three years, and we still have an annual $10 million deficit, he wrote. In addition, he said, $35 million borrowed three years ago to pay operating expenses is exhausted and needs to be repaid.

Gay Marriage Destructive to Society, Ratzinger Says

Instituting forms of gay marriage does not help homosexuals and is destructive for the family and for society, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said. Recent legislative proposals for gay marriage are part of a larger modern rupture between sexuality and fertility, he said. They mark a radical departure from the conviction that the union between a man and a woman guarantees the future of humanity. Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made his comments in an interview published on Nov. 19 in the Roman newspaper La Repubblica.

In the interview, according to the Vatican Information Service, he also criticized an aggressive secular ideology which is worrying. In Sweden, a Protestant pastor who had preached about homosexuality, based on a line from Scriptures, went to jail for one month. Laicism is no longer that element of neutrality which opens up spaces of freedom for all. It is being transformed into an ideology which is imposed through politics and which does not give public space to the Catholic or Christian vision, which runs the risk of becoming something purely private and thus disfigured. In this sense, a struggle exists and we must defend religious freedom against the imposition of an ideology which is presented as if it were the only voice of rationality, when it is only the expression of a certain’ rationalism.

Catholic Relief Services Left Iraq Last Summer

Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Catholic overseas relief and development agency, quietly pulled its foreign personnel out of Iraq last June because the situation had become too dangerous for them. Sean Callahan, C.R.S. vice president of overseas operations, said in November that the agency did not announce its decision at the time, because it pulled its people out one at a time to avoid bringing dangerous attention to them or to other foreign humanitarian workers in the country.

Board Work Deepened Her Faith, Says Burke

Although it meant raising holy hell with some recalcitrant bishops, her work as a member of the National Review Board deepened her faith, said Justice Anne M. Burke. Her 29-month term as a charter member of the lay board that monitors church compliance with sex abuse prevention policies transformed her into an active Catholic, said Burke, who has been interim head of the board since June 2003 and has recently completed her term on the board.

Before, I was a passive’ Catholic, not really quite involved in church affairs except through charity events, she said. When the sexual abuse crisis first broke in early 2002, it piqued my interest, mostly from the legal standpoint, not necessarily from Catholicism, said the Illinois Appellate Court judge. This changed after her June 2002 appointment to the lay board, which works under the bishops, said Burke. It not only transformed her into an active Catholic but opened the door to all the laity having a more effective voice in church affairs, she said.

News Briefs

The Archdiocese of Gdansk said Msgr. Henryk Jankowski had been removed as rector of his parish. The Polish priest has been criticized for years for being anti-Semitic.

A bomb explosion seriously damaged a Catholic school in Nepal, the third such attack in the last six months. No one was injured when the blast occurred on Nov. 18, about 15 minutes after the school closed for the day. The San Capitanio Elementary School’s students are mostly non-Christian.

A new one wreath per coffin rule is included in new guidelines on funeral liturgies published by Irish Archbishop Dermot Clifford of Cashel. Other wreaths are more appropriately located on the church porch or other suitable storage area near the entrance to the church, the archbishop said. The guidelines ban Mass cards on coffins and ban personal symbols, like football shirts or sports equipment, from being included in offertory processions.

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