In his first-ever live webchat on Boston.com on Friday, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, called his new plan to reorganize the archdiocese a strategy for rebuilding rather than downsizing, and said he hoped it would rejuvenate the priesthood.
“If we are going to evangelize well, parishes need to be grouped in a way that resources can be deployed toward outreach, welcoming, and the growth of the church in our archdiocese,” O’Malley said.
O’Malley said he hoped stronger parishes would send more young men into the priesthood, eventually replenishing the church’s aging and shrinking pool of clergy.
“The entire community of believers has a stake in promoting vocations,” O’Malley said, using a term for those entering the priesthood. “The Mass is the center of our lives. We must have priests.”
O’Malley participated in the chat from the archdiocesan headquarters in Braintree. He dictated his answers to an aide — because, a spokesman said, he is used to using a Spanish-language keyboard and types more slowly on keyboards for English speakers.
The new pastoral plan, which will take about five years to implement fully, will regroup the archdiocese’s 288 parishes into about 135 “collaboratives” that will have a single team of priests, staff, and lay leaders.
The plan, church officials say, is meant to help parishes use scarce resources more wisely so they can grow again. Mass attendance is a fraction of what it was a few decades ago, a third of parishes are operating in the red, and retiring clergy are not being replaced fast enough.
Although it does not call for church closings, the plan has raised concerns for many. One Boston.com reader who took part in Friday’s webchat wanted to know whether his parish would lose its pastor.
“Some pastors will certainly remain in the parishes where they are currently serving,” the cardinal said. “Others will need to be assigned to other areas.”
He said cutting costs was not the primary goal, but there would be efficiencies.
“For example, in a collaborative where there are now three active rectories, only one may be needed for priestly accommodations in the future,” he said. “One might be used as a parish center. The third perhaps could be rented out to subsidize collaborative ministries.”
He said the salaries of church staff would be shared by the parishes within each collaborative, but the details of cost-sharing need to be worked out. He said the church hoped to keep church workers, but some might need to be retrained.
One reader asked if Spanish Masses would be cut. On the contrary, O’Malley said, “We are working hard to increase our services in Spanish.”
Another reader said his local parish seemed unfriendly. He said he and his wife wanted to bring their 2-year-old to church but felt the family was unwelcome.
“A very central part of our Pastoral Planning process is to stress the New Evangelization,” O’Malley replied. “That means creating a very welcoming atmosphere in all our parishes and institutions and dedicating a portion of our resources for outreach to Catholics who have stepped away from the practice of our faith.”
“Cardinal, does this new ‘welcoming environment’ include the LGBT community?” a reader asked.
O’Malley said all people are welcome. He said not everyone would agree with the church’s teachings — which instruct that the practice of homosexuality is a sin — but that the church would like to “begin a conversation to listen and to share church teaching.”
“The church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality are demanding,” O’Malley said. “We believe these are an expression of God’s will for us. Therefore, without judging or condemning anyone, we need to teach what Christ asks us all to teach, with love.”
Asked why the church maintains its prohibition on women and married priests, O’Malley said the all-male priesthood goes back to the church’s early history, and that Pope Benedict XVI has said the church cannot change that teaching.
Celibacy, he said, “has been a great gift, making priests available to go to very difficult posts and to dedicate themselves entirely to their ministry.”
One reader suggested that rebuilding the church is not simply about being friendly. The reader said he had lost his faith and would like to have it back, but because of his scientific background, “faith isn’t something I can just change my mind about.”
O’Malley advised the reader to keep looking. “Faith is not something you can turn on and off,” he said. “I am convinced that if someone is truly seeking God that God will reveal himself to that person.”
He also said faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, and suggested that the questioner try going back to church.
“We learn to be a faithful disciple in the same way as learning to speak a language, by becoming immersed in a community that speaks that language,” he said.