The Big Dig

Reconfiguring the Church in Boston

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.

About the Author

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



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It seems that greed always shows it's ugly head. WE can see it in the lawsuits filed in response to the abuses that were reported time and again against the Catholic Church. However no other religion has come under attack like the Catholic religion has. Surely therre has been reported abuses in other religions but the media decices to ignore such reports because juries often give out huge sums to the abused. With other religions it is either take the money or face the fact that you will dragged through tthe media kicking and screaming.

 Boston will be facing a struggle to get back to where it belongs. Parishioners will be tasked time and time again to try to collect more money from people who are gun shy of alwys giving and not knowing where the money went.

 Another diocese in the United States had an appeal for money. Raised over $30 million dollars. It was suppose to be a one time deal only. But, another was held soon after. The faithful wanted to know what happened to the money from the previous capitol campaign they were told,"none of your business". No Catholic should ever hear that from a leader in tthe Catholic Church.

 Catholics are tired of being used as personnal banks for Bishops and et-al. We want accountability from our Religious leaders. We want guidance, not the opposite. We want to know if our money is being spent  trying to reach out to the community instead of building palaces to live in while the poor still suffer.

 The Cardinal should take steps to heal our Churches in Boston while hitting the parishes with a 10% tax. Use the money wisely and account for where it is spent.

Clearly the collapse has progressed to the point of now desperate hopes and measures. All this "training" may just be a way to sell the system of collaboratives while the clergy shortage runs apace. Soon, people will just up and leave to find some kind of religious community and services not always in critical supply. And the poor pastors who will have to bridge these gaps while in their late 60's and 70's will simply be burned out within their first 6 months. Perhaps a new model of ordination and training is needed that includes both sexes and the married. The monastery church regime is a dying system. A new Pentecost is needed, probably in the form of Vatican III.

I find Luke Hill's analysis consistent with my own experience living in the Boston area for the past two years.  I recently returned to my home in Atlanta filled with deep love and admiration for the people in Boston, especially the priests serving in the parishes and the folks attending Mass every Sunday.  I found the priests caring, wise, and courageous; they are heroes.  The people's faith in God and love of the Church is both reassuring and inspiring.  I was particularly struck by the parents and children in the religious education and youth programs and who proudly - and courageously - celebrated First Communion and Confirmation.  In a time when 85% of Catholics don't practice their faith, these children in church gave me a glimmer of hope in an otherwise cloudy, even dark, future.

I have loudly and often advocated for the effort in New Evangelization.  I happy to hear and read that others share my strong belief that New Evangelization, especially in Boston, but other places as well, must begin by recognizing, honoring, celebrating, and loving those in the pews - and at the altar - each week; who still find God's love and mercy most present in the Church.  These people are the Church's disciples of the future.  Without them the future becomes even darker.

As grim as things are at the present, I am not sure that we comprehend and appreciate the seismic changes occurring in the Church in Boston.  It is, in my opinion, a "perfect storm".  There are no right, quick, painless,  guaranteed solutions.  My fervent prayer everyday - often during the day - is for God to bless and strengthen these beloved people.

There is at least some creativity on display here and collaboration, but the real problem is not being addressed that of the shortage of priests - we are in danger of running them to the ground with multiple parishes. It seems to me that we are circling aroudn the big elephant in the room. Unless shortage of priests is addressed honestly it is only a patch... making celibacy optional seems to me inevitable and this is precisely what lay members of the Irish Church are asking Pope Francis - and they are a prominent group of devout and concerned Catholics:

similarly bishops of Australia posed the same request: 

Recently I talked to one of the priests who has two parishes and on a weekend after weekend he celebrates five masses - not to mention weddings and funerals - how long can we do it?

Pope Francis seems to be open in theory to such a possibility

In his book "On Heaven and Earth," published last year, Bergoglio said: "For the moment I'm in favor of maintaining celibacy, with its pros and cons, because there have been 10 centuries of good experiences rather than failures." But he also noted that "it's a question of discipline, not of faith. It could change," and said the Eastern Rite Catholic church, which makes celibacy optional, has good priests as well.

"In the hypothetical case that the church decides to revise this rule ... it would be for a cultural reason, as with the case of the Eastern church, where they ordain married men," he said in "Pope Francis. Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio," re-published last month by his authorized biographers, Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti.

cited from:

So, according to Luke Hill, the only way for the new Evangelization to succeed is for the church to abstain from spreading the Gospel of Christ in grave sexual matters--soley because a majority of folks reject Christ's teaching on these issues.

Why bother with an Evangelization, then, Mr. Hill? 

Solely for monetary puroses--to grow the church'c coffers?

Afterall, that's how popular culture measures success.  Who has the most money, and hence, power.

The new Catholic Church you seek to create would be more concerned about making people feel good (and vindicated) instead of teaching lost souls why they must reform their sinful lives.

Never mentioned in this ariticle was the reason for the church--to help us sinners save our souls in order to obtain salvation.

The real Catholic evangelization will take place only when church leaders reaffirm, in a serious but compassionate manner, the teachings of the church on the family and the path to Heaven.

When people learn to place God before the popular culture and the almighty dollar, they will lead richer, fuller, and happier lives--in this life and the next.


The reality of evangelization to those Catholics that rarely, if ever, attend Mass is a worthy goal. Its sucess will depend on a mulitiude of factors and sexual ethical teachings are one of them. A big issue is the teaching and treatment of the divorced and remarried, a large group, who have been disenfrancised and cannot participate in the sacrament of reconciliation and Eucharistic reception. Some have left the RCC, but others have remained Catholic in name only. Nothing, short of a reformed teaching will impact this group.

Another group, those that are beyond child bearing ages will not be concerned with sexual ethics, especially the teachings on contraception, in vitro fertilization and the like.   A effective evangelisation might work with this group.

For those Catholics in child bearing years, sexual ethics will be big issue not dissimilar to other parishes around the country or in the Boston area. In my parish, any couple who wants to get married must attend a series of natural family planning (NFP) sessions. After that, the parish priest leaves the decision up to the couple. Few elect to practice NFP.

Others couples who have serious fertility problems will be problematic especially those who are consider homogeneous in vitro fertilization. Some of these Catholics abide by the church teaching, most don't.

If the parish priest does not allow for a decision of an informed conscience in matters of sexual ethics (e.g., contraception) and refuses Eucharistic reception, a more profound impact will be felt by the parish or collaboratives. One priest in Brooklyn went so far as to announce at weekly Mass that anyone who practices contraception will be comittiing a sarcriledge and, if known, the priest will refuse them the Eucharistic. About 30% of parishioners at this Church started going to a nearby parish where no such pastoral policy was enforced or pronounced. The neighboring parish priest knew what was going on because it was the talk of the neighborhood for months. The parish priest at the nearby parish had a different opinion about contraception than the other priest (I am putting this politely). 

The shortage of priests are a big issue if there is only one Mass being held on Sunday or Saturday evenings at a neighborhood parish. If another parish is not too far away, and offers Mass each week, then this issue might not be problematic. However, special weekly or frequent collections that are not transparent as to where the money is going will be a significant issue. 

A smaller Catholic Church may be a fact of life in many cities and neighborhoods due to  the priest shortagae and cosolidations. This is not a bad thing. However, the Church will be facing many issues that divide the Church today: voluntary celibaby, the role of women religious in the Church, a solution to clericalism, more collegiality per Vatican name a few.

Until an answer to the many issues that plague the RCC can be grasped as the truth by Catholics (e.g., they are intelligible and reasonable and not in tension with collective human experience), weekly Mass attendance and priest shortages will continue to plague the Chruch. As the saying goes, a faith without reason is blind, and reason without faith denies the transcendental. We need both faith and reason, especially in moral matters. We also need justice and accountabilty. This has yet to manifest itself in the clergy sex abuse scandal and the cardinals and bishops who covered up these crimes. 



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