The Archdiocese of Boston, like most dioceses in our country, is dealing with declining Mass attendance; is dealing with a shrinking number of priests; is dealing and with four out of ten parishes unable to pay their bills. Yet the archdiocese has promised that it will not close any parishes for the next five years.
The Archdiocese of Boston has a new pastoral plan to deal with existential realities of parish and diocesan life. They are implementing a new model of pastoral leadership and a new effort at evangelization. The plan is acknowledging that at this moment “parish closings are no longer an acceptable option.”
The five-year plan means that for the present and for the next few years, each parish will preserve its personality. Each parish will maintain its separate identity. Each parish will retain control of its own property. Each parish will hold on to its own assets.
The Archdiocese of Boston is aware of what happens when a parish is closed. They have learned well from their past pastoral experiences. They are very familiar with the turmoil, pain and anguish that go with closing a parish and merging parishes.
The “Stepchild” Syndrome
The Archdiocese of Boston knows all about the perceived “winners” and “losers” and the “stepchild” syndrome when two or more parishes are merged. They know all about the hurt and the negative fallout for all involved. And they know the fallout is huge.
The Archdiocese of Boston knows about post-divorce families. They are familiar with the data on blended families. Divorce and blended families do not live up to their expectations. The odds of having a happier family life after the divorce are far less than commonly believed.
The Archdiocese of Boston knows that stepchildren often struggle all of their lives. They often end up in therapy for a major portion of their lives. The collapse of the family structure is traumatic. Hence, the breaking-up of families and the blending of families should be the last and only resort.
“Our findings reveal that all children suffer from divorce. No matter how many of their friends have gone through it, many children feel excluded from the remarried family.” — (Second Chances, Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee. 1990, p. 302-303)
The Archdiocese of Boston knows all about parish family fragility. They do not want to break up the interpersonal ties and spiritual ties that are part of every parish. They do not want to rip apart close nurturing relationships. Hence, the blending of parishes should be the last and only resort.
Last and Only Resort
The Archdiocese of Boston does not want to break up the social and spiritual ties of the engaged and committed parishioners. The collapse of the parish structure is traumatic. Hence, the blending of parishes should be the last resort and only resort.
The Archdiocese of Boston simply does not want to demoralize the good and active faithful who are found at the core of every parish. Many of those parishioners often do not possess the inner resources to cope well with the death of the family parish they are so familiar with.
The Archdiocese of Boston knows about the challenges of adapting to a new merged parish structure. They know that many parishioners do not have the capacity to adapt. And it is nobody’s fault. They simply cannot cope with the new sacramental and social structures that are part of a merged parish structure.
Their Post-traumatic Stress
The Archdiocese of Boston knows very well that many parishioners cannot cope with their post-traumatic stress. Their feelings of loss and bitterness and betrayal and abandonment are so great that they feel disabled and infirm. For that reason, they propose to exhaust every conceivable option and, only then, will close a parish when it is the last and only resort.
In the face of all these existential parish realities, the Archdiocese of Boston wants to first evangelize the parishes and exhaust all possible parish-leadership models before they look at the last and only resorts of closing parishes. Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley puts it this way:
“Although the challenge of renewing the church will call for significant effort and a new staffing of our parishes, we are committed to re-engage the culture and the current generation of Catholics and provide a strong foundation for those who will follow us. Our Catholic faith is our most precious gift. Parishes are the heart of the new evangelization.” — (Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, October 2012)
The Archdiocese of Boston is easing into this new five-year plan. The plan will take shape in four phases over the next five years. They will implement the plan gradually. They will do an action-research type of implementation. They will be involved in an ongoing feedback loop.
First, the archdiocese will have the experience of a few parishes involved in this new model. Then, they will study and analyze what the experience has been for these parishes. And, as they go along, they will continue to hone the implementation process for the betterment of the faith and the renewal of the people.
Home Away from Home
The Archdiocese of Boston is clearly acknowledging that, despite all the changes in society and in the Church, the parish for the average Catholic continues to be hugely important. It is what they identify with very strongly. The parish is their home away from home. It is their haven of support and validation. It is a precious spiritual and faith resource for all. “Faith in a higher power associated with religion has been used as a way to lower stress, reduce depression and promote happiness” (Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” C. Lim and R. D. Putnam, American Sociological Review, 2010.)
Historically Precious Structure
The parish is a historically precious structure that opens up the soul to the divine. It is a sacred structure where there is an inestimable and inextricable connection between people. It is where we find a great assortment of people ministering to one another in a selfless and caring way.
The parish is a focal point of faith. It is a focal point of celebration. It is a focal point of faith formation. It is a focal point of spiritual growth. It is a focal point of reconciliation. It is a focal point for the assembly to feed its soul. It is a focal point for embodying Christian values. It is a focal point for living more generatively and in a whole fashion.
The parish is where we are baptized. It is where we receive our First Holy Communion. It is where we are confirmed. It is where we are married. It is where we are buried. The sacraments bring breadth and depth to our spiritual life. It is the path to spiritual self-realization for the whole community.
Core Cell of the Church
The parish is where we experience the joy of our children being baptized and confirmed in the Holy Spirit, of couples being sacramentally married, of our sins being forgiven; of vocations being prayed for, of our sick being comforted, of our dying being reassured, of our dead being reverently buried.
The parish is a core cell of the Church. It is a living cell in the Body of Christ. It is where the universal Church comes into being. It is where the spiritual needs of God’s people are cared for. It is grounded and founded in the sacrament of baptism.
The parish is fundamentally people. It is where we care about one another. It is where people are comfortable with one another. It is where we feel at home with one another. It is where we greet one another by name. “Church friends are super-charged friends, but we have no idea why” (Lim and Putnam).
The parish is people desiring to know God. It is people desiring to love God. It is people desiring to serve God. And, in knowing, loving and in serving God, they bond with each other and establish lasting friendships. “Only when one forms social networks within a congregation does religious service attendance lead to a higher level of satisfaction” (Lim and Putnam).
The parish is parents bringing their children to Mass every Sunday. It is parents praying with their children. It is parents modeling by example how to live well. It is children growing into moral and faith-filled adults. It is families becoming immersed in a Christian value system.
Where We Pray
The parish is where we pray. It is where we pray for healthy family life. It is where we pray for a greater regard for morality. It is where we pray for a greater reverence for human life. It is where we pray for more peace and justice in our parish and in our world. It is where we pray for the preservation of our religious liberty.
The parish is the older generation of people who have raised families in the faith offering the example of their lives in support and encouragement to the new generation of Catholics. Those of the younger generation of Catholics love to imitate and emulate the seniors who have journeyed the path.
The parish is people coming together in small Christian communities to share their faith. It is there that they pray and support one another. It is there that they empathetically listen to one another and make new friends. “The more Church friends a person has then the happier he or she is. . . . People who frequently attend religious services are more satisfied with their lives not because they have more friends overall but because they have more friends in their congregations” (Lim and Putnam).
“Small Christian communities not only foster the faith of individuals, they are living cells that build up the Body of Christ. Small Christian communities offer an important and unique means of formation for the new evangelization. They strengthen their members to persevere in their faith and mission, providing both inspiration and practical support.” — (Called and Gifted for the Third Millennium. USCCB, 1995, p.11; p.13)
The parish is where participants in our small Christian communities harmonize their physical, emotional and spiritual selves. Their empathic listening to one another — along with the breath of the Spirit — transforms the whole community.
“The key idea is the small Christian community. We want to favor a growing number of small Christian communities led by the laity — the laity who are not full time; who are not bureaucrats but volunteers. We want to implement more explicitly the great theme of Vatican II; the common priesthood of all the baptized, with the ministerial priesthood at its service, promoting the holiness of the people of God. The emphasis should not be primarily on laity assuming offices in the church, but assuming responsibility for evangelization, for mission.” — (Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, O.P., October 2012)
The parish is women knitting shawls and making prayer blankets for the sick and dying. The parish is men and women witnessing their faith in our religious education program. The parish is the bereavement committee reaching out to those who have lost a loved one. The parish is the Knights of Columbus who have many years of promoting reverence for human life and generous service to faith communities.
The parish is musicians and leaders of song helping us to find God in our liturgies. It is ushers, lectors, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, and those who take Holy Communion to our sick and elderly. It is sharing our unique gifts and time for the greater good of the total faith-community.
The parish is women who wash altar linens and clean the church. It is the Sunday hospitality volunteers and the Saint Vincent de Paul Society who bring food and life to the poor and needy. It is people living like Jesus who hear the call to social justice. It is people moving from self-absorption to concern for others.
The parish is parishioners who focus on the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the homebound and the dying. Like Jesus, they believe that we will always have those in need of our care and generosity. “Christianity’s emphasis on charitable acts and positive relationships with one’s neighbor leads to a more positive mental outlook” (Lim and Putnam).
Where We Uncover God’s Vision
The parish is where we uncover God’s vision of what life can be. It is where we learn that the well being of each individual is not separate from the well being of all others in the community. It is where we become inspired to live for the greater good of the whole community, to offer selfless service to others.
The parish is the Parish Pastoral Council and the Parish Finance Council. It is the raffle committee and the golf committee who do so much to build community. It is the collection counters, the seniors and all who volunteer their time, talent and treasure. It is where good stewardship is lived.
The parish is where community is born through prayer and through parish breakfasts and suppers. “The sermons should be shorter and more suppers should be sponsored” (Lim and Putnam).
Ultimately, the parish is where people lead other people to God. It is where God is reaching down to touch humanity through the hands and feet of loving human beings who care about one another. It is a vital cell in His Church.
MSGR. THOMAS J. MORGAN, a retired pastor of the Diocese of Camden, N.J., is a New Jersey licensed psychologist, and a licensed marriage and family therapist.