Bishop Discusses Direction of Diocese

Bangor Daily News [Portland ME]
November 27, 2004

PORTLAND - So far, so good is how the Most Rev. Richard J. Malone, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, assessed his first eight months on the job. However, work released by the evangelization planning committee he appointed has spurred speculation about churches closing. Since his installation on March 31 as the 11th bishop of Maine, he has visited every parish and put 22,000 miles on his car. In his office in the Chancery in Portland, Malone, 58, recently discussed the challenges facing the diocese and the state's 218,000 Catholics.

"I'm discovering the many challenges that are on my desk as bishop. Also, I'm discovering the wonderful people and resources that we have in the diocese to meet them," he said.

"What drives me is this - Jesus Christ has given a mission to us to carry out in the world," he said. "It has many dimensions to it. My job as bishop, working with other people, is to make sure we have our resources in the right places and that we're set up in such a way as to be effective in that mission."

At his installation, Malone called on the faithful to make evangelism a passion. In June, the new bishop added a practical component to that mission when he formed a committee to help guide the church's future. He appointed 10 laypeople, three priests, two nuns and a deacon representing parishes from Fort Kent to Biddeford to serve on the panel.

The state's changing demographics and a shortage of priests are driving the need for realignment. Currently, there are 100 priests serving the 35 parishes and 44 missions in Maine. With a large number of retirements anticipated over the next five years and with 10 men in the seminary, the diocese expects to have 50 priests in 2010.

The final recommendation of the New Evangelization Planning Committee is to be delivered to Malone on Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, the day the wise men from the East brought gifts to the baby Jesus. A working document presented to priests earlier this month set off a flurry of speculation about possible church closings in some parts of the state, but Malone said on Monday that such concerns were premature.

"People are convinced I have a list in my drawer of already made decisions and I do not," he said. "There is not a list."

The committee's initial proposal calls for the current 35 clusters or groups of parishes to be reduced to 27 clusters, with one pastor overseeing the administration of the "worship sites" in each cluster, according to information posted Friday on the diocese's Web site.

"Depending on the population and geography, more priests may be assigned to a cluster to assist in ministry," the update stated. "Recommendations on how many buildings would be needed and what ministries laypeople would staff would be made at the local level with approval from the bishop. Although an initial plan has been proposed, the make-up of each cluster throughout the state is not finalized."

Other important factors will include a parish's historical place in the diocese and its geographic location, according to the bishop.

"For example, the church in Jackman ... is a small little parish but really an outpost," he said. "There's nothing around it. A place like that, we have to give special attention to."

Once the clusters are established and a specific number of priests are assigned to each, it will be up to every cluster to decide how its resources are distributed.

For example, clusters with five parishes and one priest in an area where the population is declining could decide to consolidate. Parishioners might choose to merge into one or two parishes with fewer worship sites, which could mean making the difficult decision to close a church.

Clusters will have until 2010 to make recommendations to the bishop about how they plan to implement the changes set in motion by the committee.

Malone said that the model being used in Maine "is entirely different" from the model used in the Archdiocese of Boston, where the archbishop's recommendation to close 82 parishes has led to lawsuits and church sit-ins. He said that the committee in Maine is using more than just facts and figures to make its recommendations.

"Evangelization as we think of it now is a large umbrella that really means - and it means it here in Maine - finding every creative way we possibly can to bring the good news of Jesus Christ and the good news of the Gospel to people," Malone said.

During his short tenure as bishop, Malone also launched the Catholic Foundation of Maine. The foundation, started under the leadership of Malone's predecessor, Bishop Joseph J. Gerry, is overseen by a 21-member board of directors that includes 17 lay members.

Although it has been suggested that the diocese started the foundation to shield assets from victims of clergy sexual abuse, Malone earlier this week vehemently denied that charge.

"Basically, the idea behind it is planned giving," he said. "It's meant to invite people who want to give something to the church to give. Usually, they target something like youth ministry or lay formation or support of seminarians."

He added that contributions to support counseling for the victims of clergy abuse would be welcomed.

Many other institutions, including universities, different denominations and other dioceses throughout the country have formed foundations, he pointed out. Because the money is designated for a particular purpose, it can't be accessed to settle lawsuits.

Malone said that in dealing with the challenges on his desk, the mission of the church is always on his mind.

"I'm learning so much about the challenges of the state of Maine that go beyond the Catholic community," Malone observed. "I think the current election season brought a lot of that out. The challenges we have to the economy, jobs, the tax burden ... the demographic shifts.

"All of those things are important from the church's perspective," he said. "Vatican II told us that all the joys and anxieties and hopes and desperations of all people are the hopes and joys of the church. The concerns of the community at large always have to be on the agenda of the church as well."


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