Church's Fiscal Crisis Aired
O'Malley Details Urgent Need to Close Parishes

By Michael Paulson
February 5, 2004

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley last night outlined a series of dire realities confronting the area's largest religious denomination, saying that while the Catholic Church in Boston is rebounding from crisis, it faces a shortage of priests, worshipers, and dollars that necessitates an upcoming round of parish closings.

Offering more specifics than he has in the past, O'Malley said parishes and schools in the Boston Archdiocese have gone $7.4 million into debt since 2000, when Cardinal Bernard F. Law forgave their previous debts of $26.6 million in recognition of the Jubilee year. The number of priests in the archdiocese dropped by 37 percent from 1988 to 2003, he said, and the annual number of baptisms in Dorchester alone dropped by 400 over in the last 15 years.

In a 32-minute live broadcast on Boston Catholic Television, O'Malley made it clear that the archdiocese cannot continue to operate with its current structure, and he pleaded with the area's 2 million Catholics to participate in the process of closing parishes to create an archdiocese with stronger, but fewer, parishes.

"We are trying to move ahead with this process, knowing that until the reconfiguration is finished, the life of the archdiocese is held hostage," he said in a speech he used to mark six months as the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston. "We hesitate to invest in buildings if we are not going to keep those buildings. We need to name pastors and establish new programs that are on hold as long as the reconfiguration process goes on. We do not have the luxury to tarry in the task at hand."

O'Malley has not said how many of the archdiocese's 357 parishes he expects to close.

He said there is some good news for the church: The Annual Catholic Appeal, the church's main annual fund-raising effort, which had been decimated by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, has exceeded its $9 million goal for last year by $1.5 million. And, he said, "more people are returning to the church; more are supporting the church's works of mercy."

But, O'Malley said, there are still many challenges.

"In spite of the ordination of seven new deacons this past weekend, the church of Boston still faces a substantial decline over the foreseeable future in the number of priests available to serve in our parishes," he said. "There are still many people who remain alienated from the church or who feel they cannot trust" its leadership.

He promised to revitalize the archdiocesan councils that are supposed to represent priests and laypeople, but in the past have been criticized as secretive or ineffective. "There is a growing desire on the part of priests and laity that their voices be heard and their counsel be sought," he said.

He said he is not unilaterally deciding which parishes will close, because he wants to obtain input from clergy and laypeople.

The president of the Boston Priests' Forum, the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, said he thought O'Malley's speech would be helpful as clusters of parishes get together to talk about which could close.

"He has enormous credibility, and people are very, very anxious to support him and to work together to rebuild trust and confidence," said Bullock, who is pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Sharon. "He defined a wide context for us to work through."

The executive director of Voice of the Faithful, a group of laypeople, gave a mixed review. The group expressed concern that O'Malley's deadline of March 8 for local clusters of parishes to tell him which parishes they would consider closing is too soon.

"We do credit Archbishop Sean for reaching out to Catholics and trying to provide an understanding for why this process is taking place," said the group's executive director, Steve Krueger. "But his remarks did not provide the context of the greater vision for how we as a church are going to bring people back together in our faith communities, and I think it's safe to say that the compressed timetable is creating an unnecessary anxiety that ultimately is going to not serve the purpose of this process."

O'Malley delivered his address live from the Newtonville studio of Boston Catholic Television, wearing the brown habit of his Capuchin religious order and standing in front of the Cross of St. Francis.

He made it clear that the prospect of closing churches makes him unhappy. "Closing a parish should make you sad; it makes me sad," he said. "Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined having to do this. And never in a million years would I ask this of you if I were not certain that it was necessary."

He was far more detailed in describing the archdiocese's situation than he has been previously, and he promised "transparency," saying that "moneys that are realized by the sale of church properties, as well as the use of those revenues, will be fully reported to our parishioners."

Despite improved fund-raising and budget cuts, the archdiocese faces a $4 million deficit during its next fiscal year, which begins July 1, he said, and many parishes face "overwhelming money problems."

He also spelled out clearly the shortage of priests, saying that the median age of priests in the archdiocese is 59, and 132 active priests are over age 70. The archdiocese has just 40 men in training to be priests.

O'Malley said it would cost $104 million to repair the approximately 200 church buildings in Boston alone and $50 million more for them to satisfy building codes.

"We are experiencing pain right now, but in the end, we will give birth to a renewed local church, better able to serve the needs of proclaiming the Gospel," he said.

Boston Catholic Television plans to rebroadcast O'Malley's speech today at 11 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.; tomorrow at 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.; and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.


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