New Plan to Reverse Decline?

A pastoral plan approved by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston calls for the archdiocese to organize its 288 parishes into approximately 135 groups, to be called parish collaboratives. Led by one pastor, a pastoral team of priests, deacons and lay ecclesial ministers will provide pastoral services to all the parishes in the collaborative group. Each parish will maintain its separate identity and retain control of its own property and assets.

Cardinal O’Malley said the new pastoral plan comes in response to current challenges faced by the Catholic Church in Boston and could change if circumstances improve. The diocese has struggled with a variety of fiscal and structural dilemmas. “The plan to implement a new model of leadership at the collaboratives does not mean that we are leaving behind the model of a priest being assigned as the pastor of one parish,” he said. “It is my fervent hope, encouraged by a significant increase in seminary enrollment during recent years, that a greater number of ordinations to the priesthood will allow us to again assign priests as pastors of individual parishes.”

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Called “Disciples in Mission,” the plan identified parishes’ main challenges: declining Mass attendance, shrinking numbers of priests and trained laity and an increasing number of parishes unable to sustain themselves financially. Cardinal O’Malley approved the plan on Nov. 15.

The shift marks the latest major change for 1.8 million Catholics in and around Boston, who have already endured 69 parish closures in the wake of the crisis caused by sexual abuse by members of the clergy. The plan was seen as an acknowledgment that such parish closings are no longer an acceptable option. “We are at a crossroads,” Cardinal O’Malley said at a press conference. “Mass attendance and participation in parish life has declined over the past two generations.” Currently about 16 percent of Boston Catholics regularly attend Mass, and four of 10 parishes cannot pay their bills.

“Thank God they’re not closing any more parishes,” said Thomas Groome, chair of the Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College. “But it’s really like rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. They’re postponing the inevitable.” Groome said it was becoming “dreadfully irresponsible” of the church to not “honestly face the reality of the priest shortage.” He added, “The priesthood is not going in revive in great numbers until we open it up at least to married men.”

At the press conference on Nov. 15, Cardinal O’Malley said, “Though the challenge of renewing the church will call for significant effort and a new way of staffing our parishes, we are committed to re-engaging the culture, the current generation of Catholics and providing a strong foundation for those who will follow us.”

The cardinal added, “Our Catholic faith is our most precious gift.... Parishes are the heart of the new evangelization; they must be well staffed and financially sound so as to be effective in this mission.”

The new collaboratives will usually be made up of two or three parishes. Each collaborative, the plan says, is a means for fostering common pastoral action and a common vision, not a structure “above” the parish or coming between the parish and the diocesan bishop. The collaboratives will take shape in four phases over the course of five years.

The archdiocese has not determined all the collaborative groupings yet, according to the Rev. Paul Soper, interim director of the Office of Pastoral Planning. That first phase will involve about a dozen collaboratives. Their experiences will be studied to hone the process as the implementation continues.

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