Church Eyes Migratory Flock

New York Daily News
January 17, 2004

Worried that Edward Cardinal Egan might close some sparsely attended churches in Manhattan, some parishioners are offering a suggestion aimed at keeping the doors open.

They want to bus suburban Catholics into the city to fill the pews - and the collection plates - for special Masses and events at these historic churches.

The idea already has won the endorsement of the conservative weekly The Wanderer, which added a third benefit: "A generation or two probably have never seen what a real Catholic church looks like, having grown up in nondenominational 'worship centers.'"

For the moment, though, the devout commuters can save their fare.

"Realistically," said Joe Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, "it will be months before we start working out what we want to do, and years before we finish what we decide to do."

Eventually, if all goes according to preliminary plan, the archdiocese will undergo a reorganization unlike anything in its 154-year history. If early reports are true, it will mean closing or merging some of its 413 churches, combining some of its hundreds of social, educational, medical and other agencies and redeploying its shrinking corps of priests.

Some pastors have included parishioners in surveys that are the first step in the realignment process. In the eastern Bronx, for example, pastors asked the faithful to suggest worship options in cases where there are no priests available - merger with another church, using laymen as substitutes or reducing the number of Masses and celebrating them with visiting priests.

So far, though, even the planning is on hold.

Originally, the vicars, or priest supervisors, of the 19 regions of the archdiocese were asked to submit the results of surveys to the archdiocese by last Nov. 1. They failed to complete the questionnaires on time. The deadline was pushed back to next week, but again, not all vicars have finished their reports.

The surveys measure activity in key areas of parish life, including attendance at weekday and weekend Masses, the number of students enrolled in religious education classes and the number of baptisms. One goal is to compile an overall view of church use. Another is to see if the archdiocese, which covers Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx and seven northern counties, is allocating its human, economic and institutional resources to serve its staggeringly diverse flock most fairly and efficiently.

"We may wind up deciding we need to build more churches," Zwilling said. "We don't have any preconceived blueprints."

The new scheduled date for the first planning meeting is Jan. 27.

On that day, if all 19 reports have reached his desk, Bishop Timothy McDonnell, an auxiliary to Egan and the archdiocese's chief legal officer, will take the first formal action in the lengthy procedure leading to the overhaul.

Behind the reorganization are familiar problems, shared by dioceses from Boston to Los Angeles - changing population patterns, expanding social services, leaner budgets and, above all, a decline in the number of priests.

The archdiocese, which has more than 2.4 million Catholics and an average annual membership increase of 18,000, mostly immigrant newcomers, has undergone a great geographic shift. Many of the 105 active parishes in Manhattan are slowly but surely losing members and reducing activities - Zwilling says 33 churches have fallen below minimum standards of "vitality." Nearly all were built in the early 1900s in what were then heavily Catholic neighborhoods.

In some Manhattan parishes, only a handful attend weekday Mass, while in churches north of the city, sanctuaries are overflowing and Catholic institutions, from schools to senior centers, are straining to meet demand. It is there that the archdiocese may build new facilities, Zwilling said.

The priest shortage presents the greatest challenge. As the number of priests has declined over the years, their ratio to parishioners has widened to one per 2,944. That includes nearly 50 retired priests who continue to celebrate Mass and carry out a few other liturgical duties.

"Everything is on the table," said Zwilling, who added that this includes consolidating separate social services into single centers, converting rectories to community or educational facilities and creating "mission" churches, with priests on duty only for Mass on Sundays.

"Anybody with an opinion is invited to speak up," Zwilling said. "From what I've heard, that's 2.4 million opinions right now, and counting."

Originally published on January 17, 2004


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