HOW NOT TO CLOSE A PARISH
This sentence has been corrected from the original version.
Soon after Cardinal Edward M. Egan became archbishop of New York, a Catholic publication asked me to write a piece about the state of the archdiocese. “What is its most pressing problem?” the editor wanted to know. “The archbishop’s relationship with his priests and parishioners,” I replied. Several years on, as Cardinal Egan approaches retirement age, little has changed. In fact, the situation has gotten worse.
As a front-page story in the New York Post reported on February 26, the cardinal recently summoned the pastor of Our Lady of Vilnius to his office for a meeting. During the meeting (and unbeknownst to the pastor) three security guards changed the church’s locks and barred anyone from entering. This took place an hour before Egan’s scheduled meeting with the Lithuanian Consul General, who delivered a letter from his nation’s president asking the cardinal to keep the parish open.
From a managerial point of view, this method made sense. Locking up the parish without providing advance notice of the date to its parishioners or pastor prevented the archdiocese from suffering the embarrassment of a publicized protest like the one it encountered just two weeks earlier at Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem.* There, at the conclusion of a round-the-clock prayer vigil protesting their parish’s closing, six parishioners were arrested and removed from the church. And as the protesters held a press conference outside the church that afternoon, the locks on the church’s bathroom doors were changed (cameras would have captured front-door locks being changed). Later that night, the archdiocese sent security agents to break up the vigil-some got physical with parishioners and with reporters who were covering the protest.
What sort of bishop would resort to such tactics?
Cardinal Egan remains an enigma to many in his archdiocese. In contrast to his outspoken predecessor, Cardinal John O’Connor, who could be gruff, but was not without a pastoral sensibility (and was a major player in the city’s public life), Egan seems most concerned with managing the archdiocese’s finances. He avoids the secular media almost completely.
To be fair, Egan was brought to New York to clean up the financial mess left by O’Connor, who apparently never met a charitable cause he wouldn’t fund. To that end, Egan has made some tough-and necessary-choices, chief among them: deciding to close or merge twenty-one parishes.
Given the population shifts in the archdiocese over the past thirty years, parish closures were inevitable. The dense, urban Catholic populations that required parishes within walking distance of one another have dispersed. Most of the city’s churches are large, aging buildings with staggering maintenance costs. Some parishes simply lack the manpower, money, and parishioners to justify keeping them open.
Closing a parish is touchy business, as every bishop knows. There are no painless ways to do it. Initially, Egan appeared to have learned from the mistakes of other prelates whose credibility suffered from heavy-handed “realignments”-as the process of closing parishes is euphemistically called. Egan took his time working on a plan, spending three years studying the parishes in play, listening to those whose churches were at risk. As a result, the cardinal earned high marks from his priests, the faithful-and, yes, even the media.
But as church closings started to produce unflattering headlines, Egan’s notorious allergy to the press and impatience with public criticism reemerged. Rather than do a better job of explaining his decisions, he has resorted to draconian measures that have confused those whose hopes were raised in the planning stages.
It is hard to blame the pa¬rishioners of the twenty-one churches slated to be closed or merged, or the priests of those churches-or even the president of Lithuania-for their confusion and anger. Who can fault them for asking whether the cardinal couldn’t have devised another way to carry out parish closings, a way that didn’t involve, say, brawny security guards or tactics similar to those of the worst New York City landlords?
It couldn’t have been easy to follow in the footsteps of a larger-than-life figure like Cardinal O’Connor. Egan may have the managerial and business acumen needed to keep the archdiocese afloat, but has he demonstrated enough of the pastoral skill required to lead New York’s 2.4 million Catholics? More tough decisions about parishes will have to be made in the near future. That means Egan will have another chance to get it right-or leave the unpleasant task to his successor, just as O’Connor left it to him.
* The original version of this sentence has been corrected.