Last fall, the Archdiocese of Boston released an ambitious plan designed to stem the decline it has experienced—in priests, Mass attendance, and treasure—since the 2002 wave of sexual-abuse scandals. The plan, called “Disciples in Mission,” will be phased in throughout Boston’s 288 parishes over five years. Cardinal Seán O’Malley hopes it will not only slow the decline of the archdiocese—some of it self-inflicted, some caused by powers beyond its control—but will also create the conditions for eventual growth. Whether the plan will work remains an open question. That something needs to be done is a sentiment shared widely among Boston-area Catholics. That recognition—along with the openness to change it implies—may be the most important factor in the plan’s prospects for success.

Fifty years ago, Catholics in Boston glowed with pride because one of their own was America’s first Catholic president. A century after their immigrant ancestors had been met with implacable hostility by the wealthy, powerful, confident Protestant Yankees whose grandfathers had started the American Revolution, a Boston Catholic had made it to the White House. More important, all across eastern Massachusetts Catholics were moving into their own houses, spreading out from the working-class neighborhoods in the region’s economically decaying cities, moving into the mainstream of U.S. society.

Roughly two in three Catholics attended Sunday Mass regularly. The popular Cardinal Richard Cushing had continued his predecessors’ building efforts, and shepherded a flock of nearly 2 million Catholics in more than four hundred parishes. St. John’s Seminary produced scores of priests every year. When—in response to Pope John XXIII’s call for priests to serve in Latin America—Cardinal Cushing formed the Missionary Society of St. James, it was common knowledge throughout the archdiocese that Cushing also had a more practical reason for encouraging priests to serve overseas: he didn’t have enough bedrooms in rectories to accommodate all the priests he ordained every spring. Like their counterparts elsewhere in the United States, Boston Catholics had built a parallel set of institutions—schools, hospitals, retirement homes, social-welfare agencies—to meet the spiritual, physical, and social needs of their people, and of the poor among them.

Today only one in six Boston Catholics attends Mass regularly. The network of Catholic hospitals across eastern Massachusetts is gone—sold in 2010 to private equity giant Cerberus Capital Management (recently in the news for owning the company that makes the rifle used in the Newtown massacre). The parochial school system is decimated—replaced by a growing network of publicly funded charter schools. After decades of slow decline, the number of parishes contracted dramatically to 288 in 2004 when then-new Archbishop Seán O’Malley closed sixty-five parishes in the wake of the sexual-abuse scandal.

Apparently that wasn’t enough, so last November, now-Cardinal O’Malley announced “Disciples in Mission.” The pastoral plan directs that “the 288 parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston be organized into approximately 135 Parish Collaboratives, these collaboratives consisting usually of two or three parishes, but sometimes only one, and, in rare occasions four parishes.” Each collaborative will be assigned one pastor—a clear response to the seminary’s single-digit graduating classes.

Having decided against a “priest-less parishes” model, the archdiocese determined the number of collaboratives according to the number of priests expected to be available for ministry after the remaining priests from the large classes ordained in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s retire. With archdiocesan revenues still lower than they were at the turn of the century, the baselines for establishing a collaborative were a minimum of sixteen hundred parishioners per priest and annual offertory revenue of at least $500,000. According to the archdiocese, the primary purpose of the new pastoral plan is “strengthening parishes for the work of the New Evangelization,” which is defined as “the particular work of reaching out to Catholics who are not currently active in the church.”


THE DARK CLOUD hanging over “Disciples in Mission” is of course the trauma suffered by Boston Catholics after the sexual-abuse scandal erupted into public view. Early in 2002, there was a moment when it was unclear how Cardinal Bernard Law—arguably the most powerful prelate in the country—would respond, and how the archdiocese he had led for eighteen years would be affected. If ever a situation called for reckless penitence—confession and begging for forgiveness regardless of the legal, personal, professional, and institutional costs—on the part of a bishop, this was probably it. One can imagine an alternate history in which Law walked out of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross after Ash Wednesday Mass, led a procession 1.5 miles down Washington Street to the Boston Common, where he rent his garments, poured ashes on himself, and then set off on a forty-day pilgrimage of repentance around the archdiocese, walking from one parish to the next, listening—not speaking—to the those who’d had their bodies violated, their trust betrayed, their faith shattered.

Who knows what would have resulted? Would such efforts have become a powerful channel for the public expression of private pain, even healing? Or would they have been viewed as a pathetic attempt to evade accountability? It’s impossible to say.

In any case, it didn’t happen that way. Rather than draw upon the church’s wealth of symbols and ritual, Law drew upon the resources of his Harvard education and his decades as a prominent figure in American public life—and lawyered up. If not for the Archdiocese of Boston’s Achilles heel—and the willingness of the faithful to strike at it—a long and ugly legal stalemate might have ensued. But, for all its wealth and power, the archdiocese had a peculiar financial system. Many dioceses levy a 10-percent “tax” on parish revenues. Not Boston. And with no endowment to generate investment income, the archdiocese relied almost entirely on the annual Cardinal’s Appeal to cover operating expenses.

So, when Boston-area Catholics withheld donations, the effect on the archdiocese’s finances was immediate—and dramatic. Despite repeated extensions of the Cardinal’s Appeal, the total collection dropped by nearly half from the previous year. And in many parishes weekly collections fell by nearly 25 percent. Among the many actions taken by parishioners to express their anger, this may have been the most effective at communicating to Rome the need for change. Angry priests signing letters and unhappy laity issuing statements and holding demonstrations are one thing. But the precipitous financial decline of the fourth largest diocese in the United States is quite another. Bankruptcy appeared imminent. By the end of the year, Cardinal Law was gone.

Boston’s present trouble is a self-inflicted trauma in at least two ways. There is the trauma caused by the decades-long toleration and cover-up of the sexual abuse of children. Then there is the trauma that resulted from the determination of many, perhaps most, Boston-area Catholics in 2002 not to let the institutional well-being of the church matter more than the lives of their friends, neighbors, family members, and fellow parishioners who had been harmed, some grievously, by the culture of silence (a culture in which many of us were to some degree complicit).


BETWEEN 2003 AND 2004, the Archdiocese of Boston carried out its “Reconfiguration” plan. It was a crisis response to a crisis situation following Law’s departure. The process was short, constrained, and almost inevitably divisive. Priests and lay leaders were asked to meet in geographical clusters of six to eight parishes in order to provide the chancery with answers to two questions: First, if the archbishop decides it’s necessary to close a parish in your cluster, which do you recommend? And second, if the archbishop decides it’s necessary to close two parishes in your cluster, which do you recommend? As one might imagine, these were not pleasant meetings. (In at least one cluster, two pastors almost came to blows.) Nearly a decade later, wounds are barely healed, and lay leaders from six parishes still have appeals to reverse their closings pending at the Vatican.

O’Malley then set about reorganizing the archdiocese’s finances. He began by revamping bookkeeping practices to bring them in line with generally accepted accounting practices for nonprofit organizations. He also increased transparency by putting annual audited financial statements on the archdiocese’s website. The Cardinal’s Appeal was rebranded as the Catholic Appeal, and has slowly but steadily rebounded from a low of $7 million to $13 million last year. In 2008, the archdiocese began rolling out a 10-percent parish tax. This new arrangement explicitly links the well-being of the archdiocese with the well-being of its parishes (something that hadn’t always been the case, and was a source of tension between some pastors and chancery officials). The cardinal’s actions are also driving greater financial transparency within parishes.

The new director of pastoral planning for the archdiocese, Fr. Paul Soper, has been frank about the ways the new reorganization plan has been shaped by the failures of the previous one. “People look at this with greater wariness because of our experience in 2004, there’s no doubt about that. We have a higher hill of credibility we have to get over.” Where Reconfiguration took a few short months, Disciples in Mission is the result of nearly two years of work by an Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission, a commission created in response to conversations with priests, pastoral staff, and lay leaders. Where Reconfiguration led to the immediate shuttering of sixty-five parishes, Disciples in Mission will close no parishes and will leave future parish-closing decisions up to the new collaboratives. What’s more, it states that “the formation of the parish collaboratives (will) be phased in, with appropriate flexibility, over a period of five years”—a stark contrast to the swift and relatively inflexible implementation of Reconfiguration.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the new plan calls for extensive training and leadership development for the New Evangelization: eight days of training for pastors, seven days for pastoral team members (and for archdiocesan staff), followed by ten days of training within each collaborative over the following four months, as well as a few days of training for lay leaders as the collaborative begins, followed by three more days of training with the pastoral staff. The investment of that much time and energy into training for evangelization could have a powerful effect throughout the archdiocese.

Whether it will is another question. Opportunities to evangelize disaffected Catholics tend to occur when they reconnect with the church for a specific, immediate reason: a couple wanting to get married, a family needing to bury a loved one, a mother wanting her child baptized, parents sending their children to a Catholic school, an adult seeking a sacrament of initiation. These are among the most common—and most potent—occasions for evangelization, for helping people to begin reweaving their connections with God and with the church.

That evangelization will take place in a society in which church teaching and public-policy positions related to sexuality are increasingly at odds with the views of most Massachusetts residents (especially the young)—including most Catholics. If the New Evangelization leads with a vigorous assertion of church teaching on those and similar issues, then it’s likely to face some tough sledding. If, on the other hand, the New Evangelization leads with what the old evangelization at its best did—open hearts (and ears), respectful presence, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy—then it may tap into reservoirs of faith that still exist among many who have recently distanced themselves from the church.


SETTLING INTO LIFE in Boston twenty-five years ago, my wife and I found ourselves at St. Francis de Sales, a small but vibrant, welcoming, predominantly African-American parish. A few years later, when our pastor left for a new assignment, St. Francis merged with the neighboring St. Philip’s Church. (During his eighteen years in Boston, Cardinal Law quietly merged or closed about sixty parishes in response to changes in the numbers of both priests and parishioners.) In Boston, as in the rest of the country, there is a long and powerful tradition of lay leadership among African-American Catholics. (This is due in no small part to the racism institutionalized in the historic refusal of most seminaries, dioceses, and religious orders to accept black candidates.) When Reconfiguration was announced in 2003, black Catholic leaders from eastern Massachusetts met and agreed on the importance of maintaining a parish that could serve as a center for African-American Catholics. At our cluster meetings, leaders from St. Francis de Sales–St. Philip’s and St. John–St. Hugh’s—the two remaining predominantly black churches in the archdiocese—offered a detailed proposal to create a new parish that would serve that purpose. O’Malley accepted the proposal, along with the new name: St. Katharine Drexel, after the founder of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters, who ran a beloved mission in Roxbury for much of the twentieth century. As part of a reconfiguration of ethnic ministries away from the chancery and into parishes, the Nigerian Catholic community became part of the new parish too, beginning on Pentecost Sunday 2005. Since then, we’ve worked at building a life together as a church, just as other parishes have done across the archdiocese.

The first set of parish collaboratives envisioned by Disciples in Mission was recently announced: twenty-eight parishes will become twelve collaboratives. They represent a cross-section of the archdiocese, and were chosen for their readiness to proceed and the likeliness that they will work well together and serve as models for the rest of the archdiocese. Our collaborative was not among them; it likely will form officially toward the end of the five-year process. Our pastor is nearing retirement age, as is the pastor of neighboring St. Patrick’s; the chancery seems inclined to allow pastors within five years of retiring (age seventy-five) to finish out their terms. St. Patrick’s is the center for Boston’s large Cape Verdean community, and also offers Mass in Spanish and English. When our new collaborative finally gets up and running (likely in 2016 or ’17), it’s going to be a challenge—one we don’t yet know how to meet. How will one new pastor handle a congregation that runs two schools and is made up of five cultural communities that speak four languages? It’s hard to imagine.

Our challenges will be different from those of, say, the new city-wide collaborative in Salem, or the one serving the exurban towns of Lakeville and Middleborough. Yet the fundamental challenges of building and rebuilding relationships, of negotiating the practicalities of sharing pastors, pastoral associates, ministries, and buildings, of keeping alive and rekindling the light of faith with one another, of evangelizing by example will be similar across Boston. We’re not the same archdiocese we were fifty years ago. We’re humbler, and that’s a start.

Published in the 2013-06-01 issue: 

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

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