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Salem Catholics accept diocesan plan

Catholics want their four Salem parishes to be among the first in the Archdiocese of Boston to be grouped together under a major reorganization plan that would remake 288 parishes into 135 collaboratives, each led by a single pastor.

By a show of hands, a majority of an estimated 150 Catholics who attended a meeting Sunday night at Immaculate Conception Church voted in favor of being included in the first phase of a sweeping pastoral plan called Disciples in Mission, which aims to revitalize a church still ailing from the clergy sex abuse crisis of a decade ago, and the painful closing of parishes in recent years.

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Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley will announce in January the 12 to 15 parishes he has chosen to be included in the first phase of the five-year plan that aims to bring back Catholics to church, address a priest shortage, and strengthen financially struggling parishes.

“The norm is not sustainable,” said the Rev. Paul Soper, the archdiocese’s director of pastoral planning, addressing Salem parishioners. “If we sustain the norm, 40 percent of our parishes will be closing” over the next several years.

The archdiocese earlier this year introduced the new pastoral plan to parishes. Since then, O’Malley has approved the makeup of 135 collaboratives, or groupings of more than one parish, across the archdiocese.

The Salem Collaborative consists of St. Anne, Immaculate Conception, St. James, and St. John the Baptist parishes. A task force made up of parishioners from each church has met for more than two years to work on a plan to share resources. The parishes long have conducted joint programs, such as Confirmation retreats, special Masses, and citywide penance services.

Soper said the cooperation puts Salem in a good position to be included in the first phase of the reorganization.

“Salem is right out there in front,” he said. “Because of that, we’re really hoping that you’re willing to be a phase one collaborative.”

Parishioners had mixed views on how quickly they should embrace the change.

“The train is leaving the station, but it doesn’t have to be the express train,” said Joe O’Keefe, a member of the finance council at Immaculate Conception. “We should slow down the process, and not be the first. Let’s be in the next one, not the first one.”

But Kathleen Keefe Ternes, another parishioner at Immaculate Conception, countered that Salem parishes can’t afford to wait.

“It is a risk, there is no doubt about it, being in phase one” said Ternes, who served on the collaborative’s task force. “We also have the opportunity, in phase one, to be the conductor of the train, and not just be in the car coming behind.”

Lucy Corchado, another parishioner at Immaculate, said she feels more discussion is necessary.

“We had one community meeting, and a lot of questions were asked,” Corchado said, referring to a meeting last spring where the pastoral plan was introduced. “I thought we’d get some responses back . . . but the answers never came.”

But Anne DeVoe, a representative of St. James on the task force, said Salem parishes must move swiftly to address issues of aging clergy, a drop in Mass attendance, and a lack of youth involvement.

“Our spiritual clock is ticking,” she said. “We are losing our youth. We’re losing our elderly at a fast rate [to death]. We can’t afford to wait. . . . This is a city that can pull together.”

A majority in attendance agreed. Soper said he will now take their recommendation to O’Malley.

“In the end, it will be the archbishop’s decision. But I will bring your deliberations, and your vote, to him,” he said.

O’Malley will choose a mix of urban and suburban parishes across the archdiocese for the first phase, Soper said.

The second round, which will affect 50 parishes, will start in 2014. After a two-year break, 50 more parishes will be selected for the third round in 2016, with the remainder following in 2018, he said.

Under the plan, parishes would not close or merge. They would keep their own finances, assets, and buildings. But they would be placed into a collaborative, run by a single pastor, and share priests, deacons, lay staff, and other resources.

Pastors would be required to resign their positions, but they would be allowed to reapply to lead the collaborative.

“Any priest in the archdiocese could apply to be pastor of the collaborative. The priests that are already here could also apply,” Soper said.

For parishes selected for the first phase, pastors must submit a letter of resignation in March, but they would stay with their parish until a pastor for the collaborative is chosen, Soper said.

Training for new pastors would begin in May, and the collaborative would officially start on July 1, he said.

Training for the staff, including priests and deacons, would begin in September.

The collaborative would have until December 2014 to submit a plan to the archdiocese outlining how it will operate.

Mass schedules, housing for priests, and efforts to reach out to lapsed and new Catholics must be included, Soper said.

“How are you going to live out Disciples In Mission right here?” he asked. “Most importantly, how are you going to evangelize?”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.

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