Magazine article Commonweal

The Big Dig: Reconfiguring the Church in Boston

Magazine article Commonweal

The Big Dig: Reconfiguring the Church in Boston

Article excerpt

Last fall, the Archdiocese of Boston released an ambitious plan designed to stem the decline it has experienced--in priests, Mass attendance, and treasure--since the 2002 wave of sexual-abuse scandals. The plan, called "Disciples in Mission," will be phased in throughout Boston's 288 parishes over five years. Cardinal Sean O'Malley hopes it will not only slow the decline of the archdiocese--some of it self-inflicted, some caused by powers beyond its control--but will also create the conditions for eventual growth. Whether the plan will work remains an open question. That something needs to be done is a sentiment shared widely among Boston-area Catholics. That recognition--along with the openness to change it implies--may be the most important factor in the plan's prospects for success.

Fifty years ago, Catholics in Boston glowed with pride because one of their own was America's first Catholic president. A century after their immigrant ancestors had been met with implacable hostility by the wealthy, powerful, confident Protestant Yankees whose grandfathers had started the American Revolution, a Boston Catholic had made it to the White House. More important, all across eastern Massachusetts Catholics were moving into their own houses, spreading out from the working-class neighborhoods in the region's economically decaying cities, moving into the mainstream of U.S. society.

Roughly two in three Catholics attended Sunday Mass regularly. The popular Cardinal Richard Cushing had continued his predecessors' building efforts, and shepherded a flock of nearly 2 million Catholics in more than four hundred parishes. St. John's Seminary produced scores of priests every year. When--in response to Pope John XXIII's call for priests to serve in Latin America--Cardinal Cushing formed the Missionary Society of St. James, it was common knowledge throughout the archdiocese that Cushing also had a more practical reason for encouraging priests to serve overseas: he didn't have enough bedrooms in rectories to accommodate all the priests he ordained every spring. Like their counterparts elsewhere in the United States, Boston Catholics had built a parallel set of institutions--schools, hospitals, retirement homes, social-welfare agencies--to meet the spiritual, physical, and social needs of their people, and of the poor among them.

Today only one in six Boston Catholics attends Mass regularly. The network of Catholic hospitals across eastern Massachusetts is gone--sold in 2010 to private equity giant Cerberus Capital Management (recently in the news for owning the company that makes the rifle used in the Newtown massacre). The parochial school system is decimated--replaced by a growing network of publicly funded charter schools. After decades of slow decline, the number of parishes contracted dramatically to 288 in 2004 when then-new Archbishop Sean O'Malley closed sixty-five parishes in the wake of the sexual-abuse scandal.

Apparently that wasn't enough, so last November, now-Cardinal O'Malley announced "Disciples in Mission." The pastoral plan directs that "the 288 parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston be organized into approximately 135 Parish Collaboratives, these collaboratives consisting usually of two or three parishes, but sometimes only one, and, in rare occasions four parishes." Each collaborative will be assigned one pastor--a clear response to the seminary's single-digit graduating classes.

Having decided against a "priest-less parishes" model, the archdiocese determined the number of collaboratives according to the number of priests expected to be available for ministry after the remaining priests from the large classes ordained in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s retire. With archdiocesan revenues still lower than they were at the turn of the century, the baselines for establishing a collaborative were a minimum of sixteen hundred parishioners per priest and annual offertory revenue of at least $500,000. …

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