McCaffrey: To the finish, we’ve kept the faith

By Arthur Mccaffrey
MetroWest Daily News
October 13, 2019

This fall marks the 15th anniversary of the start of the grassroots Parish Vigil Resistance Movement (PVRM) which began in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston (RCAB) during September-October in 2004. This Occupy movement — unique in the 200 year history of the archdiocese — saw parishes organize 24/7 vigils inside their churches to protest Archbishop O’Malley’s plans to close over 80 diocesan parishes in 2004. While the newly arrived bishop claimed he was only responding to changing demographics in his diocese, we knew better.

After the mess left behind by his fugitive predecessor, Cardinal Law, who escaped to Rome, O’Malley was faced with a very large bill for paying financial settlements to abuse victims. So he targeted for closure a broad swathe of both weak and strong parishes as revenue generators, like my own in Wellesley, St. James the Great, which was both financially and religiously viable, with a strong, vibrant congregation, including young families with children in CCD classes, and money in the bank— not to mention eight very attractive acres along Rte. 9.

O’Malley sent out his dreaded Fedex letters in the summer of 2004, notifying which parishes were getting the axe. In response, 24 parishes grouped together to challenge O’Malley’s decision, using legitimate canon law appeals to both the archdiocese and the Vatican. In an act of spontaneous combustion, about a dozen of us went one step further by going into full-time vigil to prevent a lockout in our parish churches.

The novel idea of permanent occupation quickly spread; before long, Catholic behinds which had been passively warming pews for decades were now warming them from inside sleeping bags overnight. These neophyte activists quickly relinquished their traditional passive, pray-pay-obey roles for a new militant role of anti-establishment protesters.

This unheard of militancy surprised everyone in the archdiocese, not least the parishioners themselves! But the driving and unifying force behind the vigils was a strong sense of unfairness and injustice. As I wrote in July 2014, ”... when Martin Luther King writes from Birmingham jail in 1963 that ‘ 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.”

O’Malley’s badly conceived, top-down reorganizational plan was forced upon unsuspecting and faithful parishioners without any consultation or input. The ignorant, insensitive diocese had to learn the hard way what parish life really meant to serious Catholics who had invested their whole lives in their local churches for generations. Diocesan prelates waved dismissively that we were getting all agitated over something that was only “bricks and mortar,” failing to recognize that, in Boston neighborhoods at least, what gave you your religious and spiritual identity was your bricks and mortar— the place where you were initiated into the sacraments, where you made your first communion, where you got married, where your children were baptized, and where you made your own final farewells in a parish funeral.

O’Malley eventually came to realize his mistake, acknowledging as much in June 2012 when his Office of Pastoral Planning admitted publicly that “Closing parishes didn’t work ... When a parish closed, people just went away. The numbers worshipping didn’t improve. We were not better off afterward.” But the damage had already been done.

Over the decade our PVRM became a dynamic and sophisticated enough force that we organized ourselves into a Council of Parishes wherein a large group of both vigil and sympathizer parishioners met regularly in the basement of St. James in Wellesley. There we planned legitimate canon law appeals to the Vatican, and shared information about the fate of those appeals via the canon law attorneys we had hired in Rome to take our appeals all the way to the Vatican Signatura (Supreme Court).

And what a litany of saints we proclaimed all around the commonwealth, and then all around the country, as other threatened parishes from New York to Oregon followed our example:

From the south shore — St. Albert (Weymouth), St. Frances Cabrini (Scituate), Star of the Sea (Quincy), St. Susanna (Dedham) — to the north shore — St. Therese (Everett), St. Michael (Lynn), Our Lady of Lourdes (Revere), St. Jeanne d’Arc (Lowell)—from the city — Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (East Boston), Holy Trinity (South End), St. Lawrence (Brookline) — out to the western burbs — St. Bernard (Newton), St. James (Wellelsey), St. Jeremiah (Framingham), St. Anselm (Sudbury), Sacred Heart (Natick) — and even as far west as St. Stanislaus Kostka in Adams.

What a joyful noise we all made!

We finished our 10-year marathon in 2014 when we exhausted our appeals both to local civil courts in Massachusetts as well as to the Signatura in the Vatican which, in July 2014, turned down our final appeal to stay open. But the laurel wreath has to go to St. Frances Cabrini in Scituate, which valiantly managed to stay in vigil until 2016, making unsuccessful appeals both to the Vatican and the U.S. Supreme Court.

And what did we learn from over ten years in vigil? Two things stand out — Community and Solidarity. While several parishes maintained an active vigil for a decade, these were only a sub-sample of many more parishes and parishioners who were united to us as a Vigil Community.

Our regular Council meetings at St. James in Wellelsey were thronged by faithful who belonged to a range of parishes — closed, open, dead, alive, in limbo, petitions active, petitions denied. People came from near and far and, in our diversity, what we all shared was an empowering sense of community — we were all in this together, fighting for our beliefs and for justice.

Which also explains the strong feeling of solidarity which impelled us to exchange supportive visits with other vigil parishes, or attend their outdoor liturgies when they had been locked out.

On this 15th anniversary of the other Boston Marathon, 2004-2016, as veteran vigilers we acknowledge the inspiration of that other long distance traveler and marathoner, St. Paul. In the middle of the first century, writing from his prison in Rome to his disciple Timothy in Ephesus, Paul spoke for all vigilers when he wrote:

“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.”

Amen, and happy anniversary to all my fellow vigilers!


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