The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston identified 28 parishes Thursday that are part of the first wave of a major reorganization intended to address declining Mass attendance, financial struggles, and a shrinking number of priests.
The reorganization, to be phased in across all 288 parishes over five years, is designed to help parishes share resources. Archdiocesan officials hope the plan will reverse troubling trends by making parishes stronger, better organized, and focused on bringing more people to church.
The 28 parishes participating in the pilot phase will remain open, but join one of 12 clusters, or “collaboratives,” with a shared lead pastor and, in many cases, assistant clergy, as well, and a parish council and finance council. The collaboratives will take shape over the next two years, as leaders are assigned and trained and begin planning for the future.
Parishioners interviewed at some of the participating parishes Thursday expressed cautious optimism.
“For the Catholic community to strengthen, we just cannot go on doing things they way we are,” said Kathleen Keefe Ternes, who attends Immaculate Conception in Salem and served on a pastoral planning task force. “We have to face the realities of the number of priests that we’re going to have available. Each parish has its strength that it can bring to that collaborative, and as a group, we’re going to be better than we are individually.”
Beth Jeanjaquet, a member of Immaculate Conception in Weymouth since she was a child, teaches religious education classes there, and her son is an altar server. The parish is slated to enter into a cluster with another in Weymouth, St. Jerome.
“I think that by joining forces with St. Jerome, maybe those [youth] programs can expand,” she said. “Any time we can join forces and make better programs . . . that’s a good thing.”
Still, priest assignments could prove a source of tension.
Janet Edsall, a lifelong parishioner at Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, said she wants to support the collaboration with nearby Sacred Heart but would not want to lose the Rev. John Sassani.
“Am I for it or against it? I’m for it as long as it doesn’t affect him,” she said. “More people are coming back to the church. You wouldn’t believe the families that are in there today. It’s wonderful, so I hope it doesn’t change.”
The archdiocese said it will announce the lead pastors of the collaboratives by mid-April and assistant priests in the weeks following. Many priests could remain in place, but all the priests in the participating collaboratives are being asked to submit their resignations to give the archdiocese maximum flexibility.
Pastors will undergo training in May and June, move (if they are coming from outside the collaborative) by the beginning of the summer, and then lay councils will be formed.
Pastoral teams and lay councils will begin intensive training in the fall. Then, a group of people in each collaborative will spend a year developing a long-term plan, including a strategy for bringing more people to church through evangelization.
The Rev. Paul Soper, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Pastoral Planning, said the pastoral assignments “are the most important choices we are making.’’
The archdiocese’s clergy personnel board and, ultimately Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, will decide which pastors go where.
Soper acknowledged that the transition period may leave some parishioners in the first collaboratives on edge, but he added, “It’s much better to make those choices carefully than to make them quickly.”
After encountering vitriolic resistance to forced church closings in 2004 and 2005, the archdiocese’s last effort to downsize, it has taken care to develop this plan slowly, after broad consultation with parishioners and clergy, and to present it as an effort that will unfold over time.
Peter Borre, who has advocated for parishioners who fought those closures eight years ago, WAS NEVERTHELESS CRITICAL OF THE NEW PLAN, WHICH HE SAID would create bureaucracy-heavy superparishes led by “distant super-pastors.”
“The Boston hierarchy is essentially destroying parishes to save parishes,” he said.
Soper conceded that the process will be protracted, complex, and somewhat bureaucratic, but he said the plan is ambitious, and the archdiocese intends to take the time necessary to make the plan work.
The challenge, he said, will be “staying open to the movement of the Holy Spirit as we move through this, while at the same time being as attentive as we can to every detail.”
The first collaboratives werechosen to help test the reorganization plan in different settings, with varying logistical and cultural complexity. All of the parishes taking part in this first round volunteered or agreed when invited by the archdiocese, Soper said.
One is unusual in that it contains just one parish: St. Mary of the Assumption in Brookline, a large, financially sound parish that is the only Catholic church in town. Its leadership will undergo the same training as the other collaboratives.
The Salem collaborative, in contrast, has four parishes that hold Masses in three languages — English, Spanish, and Polish — and serve many low-income households.
Mary Ann Holak, director of the Beverly Council on Aging, attends St. John the Evangelist in Beverly and said church officials should make a special effort to help elderly parishioners adjust “so that they can be comfortable with the change, because change is hard.”
But the Rev. John Sheridan, pastor of St. James in Salem, was upbeat, saying the new plan was the next natural step for the city’s four parishes, which already collaborate in joint confirmation class retreats and First Communion celebrations. There is a citywide pro-life committee, he said, and a recent Thanksgiving service included readings in Spanish and Polish.
“After many years of closing things and shutting things down and cutting things back, I’ve had it,” he said. “It’s time for a new beginning, and that’s why I so believe in this program.”
Peter Castellanos, a member of the parish pastoral council at Sacred Heart in Newton, said he was not sure if the plan would strengthen parishes but said his parish was ready to move forward and give it a try.
“Ask me in two years,” he said. “I’m serious about that, because you just don’t know.”