How many prison movies have we all seen about condemned prisoners waiting on death row for one final call from the governor to determine their fate — reprieve or execution?
Well, three parish communities in the Archdiocese of Boston — my own parish, St. James the Great in Wellesley, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in East Boston, and St. Frances Cabrini in Scituate — recently got their call last week from the “governor” in the Vatican, a.k.a. the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (Supreme Court), telling us that our latest and final appeal to keep our churches open had been turned down. We were the last three holdouts in Boston’s homegrown vigil parish resistance movement, which for the last 10 years has been fighting Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s fateful decision to close us in 2004.
When the newly arrived Archbishop selected 83 diocesan parishes for closure, including many that were vibrant, viable, financially and religiously sound communities of faith, our grassroots resistance movement spontaneously erupted. Twenty-four parishes grouped together to challenge O’Malley’s decision, of which nine went into full-time vigil, occupying their churches 24/7. From passively warming pews for all of their sedentary Catholic lives, middle age and elderly “accidental activists” began to warm them with their sleeping bags. In a long, drawn-out struggle that was physically, spiritually, and financially wearing, we took our case to both civil courts in Massachusetts and canon law courts in the Vatican, without success. Over the years, overnight vigils became daytime duty rosters, with only St. Frances still defiantly keeping watch around the clock till the end.
Because there has been a lot of misunderstanding, both inside and outside the church, about vigilers’ aims and practices, it should be made clear that our resistance movement was always about governance and administration, and not about faith and morals. Our membership has always contained a complete spectrum of moral and theological positions from left to right. But what united us in unique solidarity was a keenly felt sense of injustice toward O’Malley’s ill-conceived policies for parish life in 2004. Paradoxically, he has since renounced those policies: his latest 2012 plans for reconfiguring parishes involve “mergers” and “clusters,” not closings, which the diocese now acknowledges were a mistake. But O’Malley still refuses to reverse his death sentences for vigil parishes, which could be easily accommodated into the new parish clusters and configurations.
Most Catholic laity, in both their personal and professional lives, are much better versed in matters of governance and administration than seminary graduates. We vigilers proved this both to ourselves and to the wider society by managing our own parish affairs for the last 10 years, which included maintenance, planning, finances and liturgical ceremonies, as well as legal initiatives and communications with Papal Nuncios, Vatican courts, and Roman canon lawyers.
We always stood ready to offer our expertise and practical assistance to the archdiocese. But our phones never rang. Instead, unilateral, top-down decision-making by a Chancery obsessed more with control than with pastoral care ran up against staunch American Catholics educated to a birthright belief in government of the people, by the people, for the people. Pope Francis aptly described our local bishopric when he declared last year that he preferred a church which had been out on the streets, “..... rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
The narrative of prisoners in jail awaiting their fate is not always tragic, and often produces many inspirational messages. For instance, those of us in the vigil movement think we are engaged in civil disobedience for a just cause, and claim a direct lineage with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. So, when Martin Luther King writes from Birmingham jail in 1963 that not only is civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but that, even more fundamentally, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” he is speaking directly to us. We heard that call in 2004, and for the last 10 years have steadfastly borne witness to that responsibility.
Happily, King was released from jail, but his philosophical mentor, St. Paul, was not so fortunate. Around the middle of the first century, Paul found himself imprisoned in Rome for his non-conformist beliefs. Nevertheless, forever the conscientious shepherd concerned for his scattered flock, he still found time to write to Timothy, his disciple and local community organizer in the eastern Mediterranean city of Ephesus:
“As for me, my life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to depart. I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith.”
This turned out to be Paul’s last writing. He got the bad call from the Roman governor and suffered martyrdom shortly thereafter. Paul’s coda is our coda. His end game is our end game. His testament is our testament. If you want to understand us, listen to Paul.
Unlike the prisoner in the movie, this final Vatican decision against our appeal does not signal our execution or even our demise. On the contrary, we will walk away from this decade-long tussle as free men and women, with heads held high: We have fought the good fight, we have finished what we started, we have kept the faith. And in the process of fighting for our rights and speaking truth to power, we have been blessed with an opportunity rarely given to many Catholics-- to grow spiritually, to refine and deepen our faith under trial, and to become more authentic Christians, free of institutional hang-ups. Some futurists like to think that the Boston vigil parish movement represents an American Catholic Church of the future: local, autonomous, self-governing parishes, welcoming scarce priests whenever they become available, but not shy about talking to our God on a regular basis without an appointment.
So where do we go from here? Some of us already left the local brand franchise a while ago, dropping out to try other faiths, other churches, or none at all. Others of us have found surrogate “homes” within the larger Catholic family, practicing what we have preached for the last 10 years, that people are more important than institutions. We have learned, like the early Christians, to place our trust and faith in one another, not in despotic, hierarchical mutations of belief.
Weep not for these brave pioneers. This is not the beginning of the end; in the long pilgrimage of a faith-filled life, it is just the end of the beginning. God bless us all.
Arthur McCaffrey is a member of the vigil parish community of St. James in Wellesley. He can be reached at email@example.com.