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Digging in to stay and pray

By JEFF SEVERNS GUNTZEL | National Catholic Reporter | August 26, 2005

At a glance: Facing a priest shortage, shifting demographics and financial strain, they Boston archdiocese is in the midst of the largest wave of parish closures in the history of the American church. Catholics in the country's fourth largest diocese, still healing from the sex abuse scandal and accusing the diocese of moving too fast and disclosing too little, are using sit-ins, litigation and legislation to force accountability from their hierarchy.

At some 'suppressed' churches, they defy O'Malley's plan

Boston - In the basement of St. Anselm Church on the west end of the Boston archdiocese on a cool summer night, first appearances would suggest business as usual. It’s a retirement party for a beloved priest, and there are all the church basement essentials: wood paneling, fluorescent lights, linoleum floors, women in pastels, men whose ties don’t go with their shirts, an electric piano pumped through mounted speakers, ham and potatoes, and -- perhaps especially fitting for Boston -- beer.

But then, as has been the trend in the country’s fourth largest diocese, things begin to shift from the ordinary to the extraordinary. A group of parishioners approach a microphone to perform an original song for the entertainment of their retiring pastor. The packed house, pressed together at banquet tables littered with soggy paper plates and crumpled napkins, lets out a collective and expectant hushed giggle as the music starts.

The group begins in chorus: “Blow it up! And start all over again! Blow it up! And start all over again!” They are smiling and clapping the beat. Soon the whole room -- young and old and plenty of each -- is smiling and clapping and singing with them. They are singing about their archdiocese and they are full of joy.

Something is happening in Boston.

From the half-lit chapel upstairs at St. Anselm, the sounds of the basement celebration are muted. Sleeping bags, pillows and stuffed animals wait on pews. Two made-up beds topping blowup mattresses sit side by side near the chapel’s rear entrance. A young family of six is spending the night. The chapel has been occupied, in the literal and tactical sense, for the better part of a year by a core group of parishioners desperate to save their church from the diocese-wide reconfiguration plan of Archbishop Sean O’Malley. The archbishop ordered nearly one fourth of Boston’s 357 parishes closed early last year, citing demographic shifts, a shortage of priests and financial strain.

St. Anselm is one of the 83 parishes ordered “suppressed,” or shuttered and sold, by O’Malley in 2004, a liquidation unprecedented in the American Catholic church. And it is one of nine churches to resist its suppression decree through direct action (night and day occupation) aimed at thwarting a process many believe is forcing the people in the pews to pay for the mistakes -- and crimes -- of their hierarchy.

Bernard Swain, an experienced private consultant to parishes and other religious communities in the archdiocese, believes that the church had to do something. In fact, said Swain, that something “should have happened beginning someplace between 10 and 20 years ago.”

“The decline in priests,” Swain continued, “like the decline in the physical condition of the parishes, like the pending crisis in the finances of the diocese, like the demographic trends that were emptying out a lot of the urban parishes and overfilling some of the suburban parishes, none of those things came suddenly. None of them was unpredictable. All of them could have been foreseen by the early ’90s or middle ’90s.”

Instead, he said, by the time O’Malley came on the scene, “all of those trends had reached crisis proportions.” The driving force behind reconfiguration and its rigorous and controversial timetable, Swain added, can only be understood as “crisis management.”

Following the money

The most immediate crisis was financial. In November 2003, O’Malley reported an annual deficit of $10 million in the archdiocese’s Central Fund, which covers administrative costs and other centralized spending of the archdiocese. One month later, The Boston Globe reported a $20 million deficit from a leaked 2004 audit of the Central Fund. That same month, O’Malley reported an unfunded pension liability of $80 million. And in May of this year, the archbishop reported that the archdiocese had not contributed to its Clergy Retirement Fund for 16 years, between 1986 and 2002, despite nearly $5 million per year donated by parishioners and earmarked for the support of retired priests. The archdiocese insists the money went to another fund set up for the benefit of priests and has promised to release financial statements related to clergy assistance funds at the end of 2006. Critics say the delay does little to assuage doubts.

In recent testimony before a state legislative committee on a proposed bill that would require the Boston archdiocese to open its books to public scrutiny -- forcing the chancery to make good on its verbal and written commitments to financial transparency -- Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin said the archdiocese had liquidated $200 million in church real estate since O’Malley’s ascent to archbishop in 2003. There is little clear indication where that money has gone.

Suzanne Hurley, a parishioner at St. James the Great in Wellesley, a church that has been in vigil since Halloween 2004, speculates that all of the hurt, tension and mistrust that exists in the archdiocese today over parish closings and news of severe financial troubles may have been avoided if the archdiocese had come clean with the what and the why -- and then made the how a subject of discussion instead of a decree.

“If they had said to us: ‘How can we come together and fix it?’ ” said Hurley, “you could have had parish councils and clusters of parishes come together and say, ‘This is what we can do and this is what we can raise.’ ”

With the archdiocese, Hurley continued, “it’s a matter of ‘We mismanaged the money you gave us, we moved and promoted priests who should not have been allowed with children, and now we’re asking you to pay even further by giving us your churches.’ ”

The archdiocese has maintained, against a current of suspicion and criticism, that reconfiguration is not about money only. But in interviews with more than three-dozen Catholics in Boston over a one-week visit in June, money was central to talk of the fast-changing relationship between hierarchy and flock that has seen a historical wave of church occupations, lawsuits against the chancery, and determined responses from city hall and the state house.

The response to O’Malley’s reconfiguration, said William Clark, a professor of religious studies at Holy Cross College, has “set an entirely new standard of behavior between the chancery and the faithful.”

“On the one hand,” Clark said, “people who have disagreed deeply with administrative decisions of the church have not just ‘gotten over it’ or quietly walked away from active participation in the church. They have insisted on claiming an active voice in the church in direct opposition to the clerical leadership, and they are showing an inclination to use this voice to demand accountability in general, not just in connection with their single issue.”

David Castaldi, a former chancellor for the Boston archdiocese, said, “Boston is unusual but not unique. The same issues that have driven reconfiguration here will drive a need for reconfiguration in other dioceses.”

Castaldi is a board member of Voice of the Faithful, a group formed in reaction to the clergy sex abuse crisis with the purpose of seeking reform of church structures. He is an adviser to Voice of the Faithful on parish finances, and he heads an oversight committee charged by the archdiocese with monitoring the use of funds generated by the suppressed parishes. He sees it as inevitable that other dioceses will have to “go to school on Boston.”

A painful process

Boston has been through a reconfiguration process before. In the two decades prior to Cardinal Bernard Law’s resignation, the archdiocese cut its parishes from 402 to 357.

O’Malley’s reconfiguration decreed a greater number of closures over a far shorter period, and many more suppressions than the less dramatic mergers of past reconfiguration.

Even those who support the closing of parishes in the archdiocese are critical of O’Malley’s process, which went something like this: In late 2003, underscoring his intention to work his way swiftly and decisively through reconfiguration, O’Malley announced his decision to institute a diocesan-wide freeze -- effective immediately -- on the naming and reappointing of pastors, capital fundraising campaigns, buying or selling of property, new building construction, or nonessential renovations.

Then, in January 2004, O’Malley told Boston’s parish-level leadership that they had eight weeks to come up with recommendations on which parishes should be closed. Around 80 parish “clusters” were given two questions to answer on deadline: “If the archbishop needs to close a parish in your cluster for the greater good of the archdiocese, how would you recommend that your cluster of parishes be reconfigured and why?” And, “If the archbishop needs to close more than one parish in your cluster, how many parishes would you recommend for closure and how would you recommend that your cluster be reconfigured and why?”

It was, for many, a painful process. While many urged him to slow the pace of reconfiguration, O’Malley announced his intention to speed the process, forewarning suppressed-parishes-to-be that they would have a maximum of 16 weeks to shut themselves down.

The archbishop repeatedly addressed criticism by emphasizing the spiritual and institutional logic behind reconfiguration, which frustrated many who were not asking “Why a reconfiguration process?” but “Why this process?”

In a live television address to Boston’s Catholics, marking his first six months as archbishop, O’Malley appealed to local Catholics for understanding and cooperation as the archdiocese marched forward.

“In some older neighborhoods,” O’Malley said, “a one-mile walk can take you past four or five Catholic churches. We just can’t sustain that kind of reduplication. Under the best circumstances it is impractical; in our present situation it would be impossible.”

Months later, with parishes in vigil grabbing local, national and international headlines O’Malley made another appeal to his flock in a letter to all members of the archdiocese.

“Closing parishes is the hardest thing I have ever had to do in 40 years of religious life,” he wrote. “I never imagined I would have to be involved in anything so painful or so personally repulsive to me as this. At times I ask God to call me home and let someone else finish this job, but I keep waking up in the morning to face another day of reconfiguration. So when people ask why I am doing this, I can only say it is because I love the church and want to give my life to the service of the church. If difficult decisions are not made now, the mission of the church will be seriously compromised in the future.”

“People make difficult decisions all the time,” said Hurley. “We make them every day in the business world. Things don’t go our way but we know why.”

Looking back on the process, it is the lack of direct communication with the archbishop that bothers her most. Word of critical decisions came to the people of St. James through The Boston Globe or written decrees delivered by Federal Express. What they wanted was face time. Her parish had questions, and in a centralized system of governance like the archdiocese, they knew it was the ear of the leader they needed.

Hurley, a mother of two, sat in a pew near the front of the chapel at St. James the Great. Just back from dropping her daughter at basketball camp, she had exactly 20 minutes to spend talking to this reporter before heading off to work at a life sciences company.

“I want to be a viable asset to my church. I don’t just want to be a monetary value. I want to walk in and know that when my children sit here with me, that they know that this is their church too.”

Instead, said Hurley, “We fought for two years with my son saying: ‘What’s a pedophile?’ and ‘What’s sexual abuse?’ and ‘Why aren’t the priests in prison?’ ”

Now, she said, her son is asking: “Why are they taking our church?”

“When you come into the church and your own children are questioning the people that are up there … it’s not the leadership that I want my children looking up to.”

This kind of crossroads talk is not uncommon in Boston these days. Many parishioners who did not give up on the church during the steady strain of the sexual abuse scandal found themselves on the edge of walking away when reconfiguration hit their parishes. But for many, it was the vigil that brought them back -- at least to the precipice.

“I admit I was probably a passive Catholic. I did ‘pray, pay and obey’ really well. But,” Hurley said, “when they started the reconfiguration it became personal to us. … We have all seen our community become stronger because we have all taken ownership of our faith, which I think many of us didn’t have before.

“I think that what we are doing is respectful and appropriate,” Hurley said. “I think what bothers the archdiocese more than anything is that we are not compliant.”

Saving St. Albert the Great

Noncompliance saved St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, the first parish to go into vigil in August 2004, and, in May 2005, the first to see its suppression decree reversed. At a folding table in the basement of St. Albert, parish council member Mary Akoury, 68, laid out a copy of that day’s Sunday bulletin (parishioners had produced the Sunday bulletin every week of their 10-month vigil) and pointed to a list of committees. There were 20.

“We were running a parish without a pastor,” Akoury said.

There were committees for hospitality, adult faith formation, housekeeping, fundraising, the parish health ministry, and on and on. (The Parish Council and Finance Committee, common to any parish, were not listed).

The parish had become completely self-sufficient during its vigil. St. Albert reopened with more than $40,000 in its utilities fund and $85,000 in its legal fund.

How many of the committees existed prior to the vigil?

“None,” Akoury said.

Now that the parish had a pastor, there were no plans to dissolve the new committees (except for the vigil committee). “They are going to be consultants to the pastor and the parish council,” Akoury said.

Upstairs, at St. Albert’s first Mass since the archdiocese had reversed its suppression decision, the pews were full.

Latecomers stood in the back as Akoury made announcements. There were positions that needed filling: two part-time cooks, money counters. Were the people who formerly handled these responsibilities still interested?

“And we desperately need the carpets cleaned,” she said. “There has been a lot of traffic over the last 10 months.”

Then, turning to more contentious issues, she announced: “We will be receiving all assets taken at the time of suppression.”

Applause.

Though there seemed to be much jubilation following their victory, there was still some measure of trepidation in the pews that morning. The parish had reopened without its popular and outspoken pastor, Fr. Ron Coyne, who had not been reassigned to St. Albert or any other parish.

The new pastor, Fr. Laurence J. Borges, had served St. Albert in the 1990s. The whispering surrounding Borges the morning of June 19 was tainted with a sort of “we’ll see” tentativeness.

Borges passed the first test. He knew well the challenges he faced, and he won thunderous -- yes, thunderous -- applause for the ending note of his homily that day:

“You and the parish, because of the experience of the almost 10 months of vigil, have changed. You have a deeper love and a greater loyalty for your parish. Also, you learned a great deal about practical pastoral practice because you were ministering to each other.

“I, as your pastor, recognize this. I come here to work with you, not for you.”

It was a masterful stroke for Borges to acknowledge what may not have been apparent: Through the vigil process, they had become a stronger, more committed and more connected parish. They had changed.

The word one parishioner used to describe the Mass was “validation.”

“When a priest comes to this parish,” Akoury said later, “the one thing they need to expect is that there will be lay involvement in the everyday decision-making for the parish. The spiritual is the purview of the pastor, but again there will be input from the prayer service committee.”

Raising the oft-cited shortage of priests in Boston, Akoury added, “We could be a model for the archdiocese.”

It was no small delight to parishioners that day that their new full-time pastor, though described by parishioners at St. Albert as “traditional,” seemed ready to affirm that model.

‘Important, historic’

Steve Krueger was the founding executive director of Voice of the Faithful. The night he learned the St. Albert vigil was on, he drove to Weymouth to have a look and to express his support. He remembers an air of commitment and purpose and inside the chapel a sense of surprise: After all the meetings and all the talk, the people in St. Albert were in vigil.

There were many questions that night, mostly unspoken, about where it would all lead. But, Krueger said, he was struck by a sense that he was “in midst of something very important and, arguably, historic.”

Today he believes the parishes that went into vigil or otherwise resisted the reconfiguration process of O’Malley are not only part of a movement he had seen grow exponentially through Voice of the Faithful in the wake of the sex abuse crises; they are themselves a movement.

On the heels of the difficult cluster process, Voice of the Faithful’s Boston chapter sponsored a series of “Parish Preservation Summits,” a forum for people despairing over what they viewed as another major crisis in Boston. People came to the summits to vent and to ask, “What’s next?”

Krueger, now a consultant to some of the suppressed parishes, was struck by the number of Catholics in attendance with no previous affiliation with Voice of the Faithful -- hundreds of them. There was a sense, Krueger said, of a “broader movement.”

The summits culminated in a Mass on the historic Boston Common, initiated to provide a shared worship space for suppressed parishes and to send a message to the archdiocese. Thousands came and the Boston Herald, in one of many supportive editorials from the city’s major newspapers, wrote: “When more than a thousand Boston area Catholics gather on Boston Common on a cold, misty Sunday in a show of faith, of solidarity and of protest, it’s time archdiocesan officials took note. … These are reasonable, devoted people; they need to be treated as such.”

Increasingly, though, people felt they were treated with indifference, even contempt. Many of the Catholics interviewed for this article had made a point to attend the screening of a Boston-made documentary film, “Closed On Sundays,” which attempts to capture the controversy over closures in the archdiocese. There is a scene in the film that, for many who saw it, perfectly portrays the fissure in the archdiocese.

The scene takes place in Charlestown, where a handful of women from a suppressed church stand across the street from one of the city’s two still-open churches with signs. They are waiting for O’Malley to emerge from a special Mass and are requesting a visit. The decision to close their church, St. Catherine of Siena, was a mistake, the women were saying, just come and see.

Eventually the archbishop comes out. He is wearing his trademark Franciscan robe and he is alone except for one person, presumably an assistant. Descending the church steps, he notices the women, who are calmly appealing to him for a visit. He smiles, waves and then disappears into a waiting limousine and drives away.

All he had to do, people say again and again, was cross the street.

Taking a second look

In an attempt to mitigate reconfiguration fallout, O’Malley eventually appointed an external review committee with responsibility for taking a second look at a handful of his decrees. For nine months -- from October 2004 to July 2005 -- the committee met with suppressed parishes and reviewed parish reports, charts and appeals. By the time the committee had finished its work and made its recommendations, the archbishop had reversed roughly one-quarter of his 83 suppression decrees. St. Albert and St. Anselm were among those spared.

O’Malley’s appointment of an external review committee was welcome news, but the large number of reversals, nearly one in four, elicited more of an “I told you so” than a thank you from the people in the pews. The reversals were as close as O’Malley had come to explicitly stating his process was flawed.

The committee was not the only beacon of hope for Boston Catholics fighting the closures. The committee and others eventually consolidated their growing influence and formed an advocacy organization, the Council of Parishes.

A handful of parishes filed civil suits, claiming the property the archdiocese was hoping to liquidate did not in fact belong to the archdiocese.

Others appealed to Rome, citing the bankruptcy filings of the dioceses of Spokane, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; and Tucson, Ariz. In each case, diocesan lawyers insisted parish property did not belong to the chancery and was therefore not made vulnerable to creditors. O’Malley was claiming the opposite, and appropriating not just parish property but parish funds and pouring the money into the overspent Central Fund.

Perhaps the most dramatic action has been that of Massachusetts State Sen. Marian Walsh, who drafted legislation that would require the archdiocese of Boston, and all Massachusetts religious organizations that receive charitable donations, to file an annual report like the more than 30,000 non-religious charities in the state. Walsh’s legislation quickly attracted 35 cosponsors and the backing of Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin. Walsh and Galvin are both lifelong Boston Catholics. If the legislation is passed, and its chances are excellent, the archdiocese would have to file an annual report disclosing key financial information, including settlements and all property holdings.

Convinced there should be no “sacred cows” when it comes to the millions of dollars Massachusetts taxpayers donate annually to religious organizations, Walsh admits some discomfort in taking on her church in such a public manner. “The culture of the Catholic church is so strong,” Walsh told NCR. “It’s unfamiliar for us to be open, to be transparent -- we are uncomfortable with the openness, so some of us conclude that it is wrong.”

Still, more and more of Boston’s Catholics seem to have concluded transparency is necessary. Four hours of public testimony for Walsh’s religious charities legislation drew as many as 400 people Aug. 10, many of them wearing large yellow buttons that read: “ACCOUNTABILITY NOW!”

A spokesperson for the archdiocese, which provided written testimony opposing the legislation but was not represented at the public hearing, told NCR that it is simply time to move on and “allow the archdiocese to take a big, deep breath.”

Acknowledging “a small group out there that has continued to inject itself throughout the archdiocese in a rather unfortunate manner,” Terry Donilon said, “It’s about time to turn down the rhetoric.”

Reconfiguration, he said, was a process “begun with the best of intentions.”

“It’s time to move beyond the process,” he added, “and help heal the church here in Boston.” Donilon said O’Malley was looking forward to having more space for a positive discussion on issues close to his heart, such as social justice and poverty.

The prospects for deep breaths and moving on seem dim for now. One day after Walsh’s packed hearing, the archdiocese acknowledged a verbal ruling from the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome, which answered canonical appeals from several Boston area parishes with an affirmation that the assets of suppressed parishes cannot in fact be directly appropriated by the archdiocese, as has been done throughout Boston’s reconfiguration process. (082605s.php 082605s.php See related story.)

“The church in Boston does need the assets of these closed parishes to resurrect itself out of its financial difficulties,” said David Castaldi. “But unless there is more financial disclosure -- with lay involvement -- it will be difficult to get the credibility for support of just giving the money from the parishes to the archdiocese.”

Steve Krueger agrees. “Clearly the archdiocese needs help. But they can’t expect to have Catholics just turn over the net proceeds that have basically accrued from generations of donors.”

Some observers insist that restoring a relationship of trust in the archdiocese would require a reversal of behavior norms decades, even centuries, in the making.

“At this point,” said Bernie Swain, “people realize that it was not just the protection of pedophiles and it was not just the cover-up. The reconfiguration reveals a pattern of mismanagement of finances, of properties and of personnel across the board for 20 years. It reveals blanket incompetence.”

That alleged incompetence is a matter of still more frustration for Catholics in a city dense with problem solvers trained locally in some of the most prestigious universities in the country.

Holding vigil or otherwise keeping a close watch on diocesan developments have been attorneys, consultants, teachers and people who work in public relations and finance. According to civil lawyer Mary Beth Carmody of St. Jeremiah Parish in Framingham, the last parish to enter into vigil, the diversity of voices speaking out against church decisions and management is not an opposing force but “absolutely” a window into what would be available to the archdiocese if ever leaders decided to turn to their flock for the advice and assistance many believe they desperately need.

“We keep telling the archdiocese that we are not dissident Catholics,” said Carmody. “We are the core and foundation, we are the parish council members, we are the parish finance council, we are the confirmation teachers, the religious education teachers, the lectors and the eucharistic ministers. We are the core of the Catholic church, and not only that, we are their gold because we are the core that cares enough to fight.”

Jon Rogers is a parishioner at St. Francis X. Cabrini in Scituate and an active member of his parish vigil. St. Francis is one of four parishes that passed through the external review committee’s process with their suppression and vigil intact. Rogers works in the investment industry, and like many of Boston’s Catholic professionals, he cannot reconcile his own sense of institutional integrity with what he sees going on in his archdiocese. He is fighting for his parish and his church and he is prepared for a long fight.

“I basically look back at the past performance of any given investment,” Rogers said, “and try to determine what the future is going to hold for it.

“And if you take the past performance of the archdiocese of Boston,” he said, a disclaimer would be required: “Past performance is not reflective of future results.”

“God,” he added with a laugh and a shake of his head, “I would hope not.”

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is jguntzel@natcath.org.