Closing arguments

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Article Parish Life
Though they agree that sometimes a parish must be closed, U.S. Catholic readers have plenty of suggestions on how the process might be improved.

Last year, the Archdiocese of Boston announced the closing of 65 parishes in what Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley called a "radical reconfiguring" of the nation's fourth largest Catholic diocese. The closings, coming two years after the clergy sexual abuse scandal, reignited the anger from that period. Many Boston Catholics blamed the cost of the legal settlements associated with the scandal for the archdiocese's financial crisis. Some parishioners at parishes targeted for closure responded by protesting, even risking arrest in round-the-clock vigils.

But the causes of parish closings go deeper than the financial problems created by the scandal. As Catholics have followed other ethnic and religious groups to the suburbs, they have left behind parishes built to serve the immigrant communities of generations past.

Most bishops have been reluctant to close parishes, sometimes leaving the burden to their successors. Until last year's closings in Boston, the largest mass closings of parishes had been in Detroit in 1989 and Chicago in 1990. The backlash that resulted from those closings has led most bishops to adopt a more gradual approach.

But continuing demographic shifts coupled with the growing shortage of priests suggest that more parishes will be at risk of closure in the near future. Given that reality, are there alternatives to closure or any ways of improving the process by which parish closings take place?

According to a recent survey of U.S. Catholic readers, the answer is yes. While many understand that there are circumstances in which parishes may need to close, they are also upset that laypeople often have little involvement in the decision-making process. Many readers believe that dioceses should be more aggressive in pursuing alternatives to closing, such as the use of lay pastoral administrators in cases where no priest is available to serve as pastor. And a significant number want the church to consider ordaining married men and women as a way of expanding the number of available priests.

A realistic assessment

Despite a very strong attachment to their parish communities, an overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholic readers (81 percent) agree with the statement: "Sometimes, for the greater good, some parishes need to be closed."

"With the current level of clergy, in justice, some parishes need to be closed," says Nancy Thomas of Walled Lake, Michigan. "It isn't fair that some pastors have 8,000 people to pastor, while others have 800 or fewer."

In addition to the priest shortage, a large number of readers (57 percent) cite the movement of Catholics to the suburbs as a major reason for parish closings. "In many parts of the country it's about demographics," says Bill O'Connor of Pittsburgh. "The population is shrinking in areas where there were several churches built 50, 70, even 100 years ago to accommodate different ethnic groups."

Msgr. John Bendik of Pittston, Pennsylvania has been the pastor of three merged parishes for more than 12 years. He suspects that more consolidation is coming.

"Because of the decreased population in our city, we are fully aware that some day we will be merged with other parishes," he says. "We are also aware that church buildings will be closed. My concern is that we do not lose sight of the fact that what is of essence to us is that we are a eucharistic community, a people bonded around the altar of the Lord. We need an ongoing process to make any transition less painful."

A difficult process

While they understand that sometimes parishes may need to be closed, U.S. Catholic readers express a great deal of frustration with the way closings are often handled. Most of their frustration centers on what readers believe to be inadequate communication from the bishop and other diocesan personnel as well as a perceived lack of lay involvement in the decision-making process. Many readers recall cases-although often without citing specifics-in which the bishop simply announced the closing without giving adequate notice to the affected parish.

Better communication and consultation is a priority for many readers, but they also want their input to be taken seriously and to have some impact on the outcome. Ken Conen of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, who has experienced a parish closure, recalls that "meetings were held for input, but the decision was already made at the diocesan level. Why deceive people and give false hope? It made the hurt more painful."

Experiences such as this may explain why less than half of the relatively small number of readers who had personally experienced a parish closure (7 percent) believe the closure had turned out to be a good decision.

It may be true, though, that no amount of consultation can fully assuage the grief of losing a parish community. A reader from Providence, Rhode Island still vividly recalls the closing of St. John's Parish in that city some 25 years ago. "At the last Mass, the priest from the diocesan liturgy office closed the doors and nailed two boards across it in an X pattern. We were all in tears as we marched down the street to a nearby church, our new parish," she says.

Silver lining

Despite many painful tales, some survey respondents were able to find a few moments of grace in the experience. James O'Neil of Wilmington, Massachusetts notes that when St. Alphonsus Parish in Beverly, Massachusetts closed in 2004, the parish "sent their parish statues and religious articles down to a remote, poor parish in South America. Some of the parishioners personally delivered these items."

Roseann Felder of Wakeeney, Kansas says, "Our bishop frequently visited a small rural parish to fill in as the pastor's health gave way. They had to know how much he cared, but he had no choice but to close the parish. Now they have scattered to other parishes, but some still don't feel at home yet."

Felder's story points out the difficulty displaced parishioners often have in adapting to their new parish. Many readers note that the transition can be particularly tough for elderly and disabled parishioners. But readers also told stories of the process working well.

Margie Saurer of Stillwater, Oklahoma says that in her home community in Minnesota, there were two small churches 17 miles apart. "In the winter the larger church was the place for Mass because it was heated," she says. "In the summer, every other Sunday, there was Mass at the smaller church. After several winters, the members of both churches agreed to move several beloved statues into the larger and warmer church, and the other was closed."

"The best way I've seen a parish closing handled was when parishioners of both parishes met with the bishop's representatives and worked together to make the closing and merger as painless as possible," says Elizabeth Person of New Orleans. "Of course, there was still a lot of sadness because the closed parish was quite an old one in the city."

Kathleen Chesto of Southbury, Connecticut also recalls a positive experience of a merger. "Two parishes, both with old churches, were combined and a new church was built. Both communities brought important symbols from their churches and processed with them to the new church. Both communities had a voice in the design and government of the new parish."

Alternatives to closing

While these stories suggest that it is possible for closing parishes to make the best of a bad situation, most U.S. Catholic readers are looking for alternatives to closing and greater lay involvement in the decision-making process.

An overwhelming 79 percent agree that a parish should never be closed unless the parishioners have been given notice and have had a reasonable chance to save it by increasing donations or otherwise raising enough money. While canon law assigns the decision exclusively to the bishop, almost three quarters of those surveyed favor more collaborative approaches, such as the use of a board of clergy and laypeople to make the decision.

"Far too often, laypeople are left out of decisions until it is too late for change," says Mary Jane Helmann of Seattle. "Too frequently parishioners' thoughts and feelings are not considered. Church leadership still does not know how to delegate and share authority."

But what are the alternatives? One option favored by many readers is for parishes to share a priest or for a closing parish to become a mission of a more stable parish nearby. Kathleen McGourty of Arlington Heights, Illinois believes that "wealthy parishes should support the poor ones. That is the gospel message and the basis of Catholic social teaching."

Another option that has widespread support is the use of deacons, religious, and lay pastoral administrators to administer parishes if a priest is not available to serve as pastor. Joan Zelten of Poland, Maine knows of a parish in northern Maine where "a laywoman who is well-trained in pastoral administration is presently the ‘pastor,' with a nearby parish priest taking care of the sacraments-and she is doing a terrific job!"

Many readers also favor empowering lay boards to run parishes that might otherwise be closed. "The best alternative to closing parishes would be placing responsibility and a sense of ownership in the hands of the parishioners," says Marianne Pollack of Roswell, New Mexico. "If they truly love and appreciate their parish home, it will be reflected in their efforts-financial and otherwise-to save it."

One difficulty with all of these options, however, is that they may place greater burdens on a shrinking pool of priests. In many rural areas, it is not uncommon for priests to be traveling to and from multiple parishes to celebrate Mass, preside at funerals, and offer the sacrament of Reconciliation. If many parishes currently at risk of closure remain open, it will mean that an increasing number of priests will be splitting their time between two or more communities.

"My situation is pretty livable," says Father Shawn O'Neal, pastor of two parishes 20 miles apart in the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, "but I hear all kinds of horror stories from dioceses in the Midwest where guys are handling three or four parishes. It's a recipe for burnout."

O'Neal presides at Mass four times at his two parishes over the course of a weekend, and occasionally drives to a third parish to celebrate Mass in Spanish.

A fix for the future

What American Catholics are beginning to experience is already a reality in many parts of the world. "One half of the Catholic communities in the Third World do not have a resident priest," says Father Thomas Rausch, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "The bishops seem unwilling to seriously address this problem. Instead we're combining parishes and creating larger and more impersonal communities."

Many U.S. Catholic readers would like the church to explore options for expanding the pool of available priests. "The church needs to recognize that there isn't a shortage of vocations. The church has chosen not to recognize many who feel called," says Diane Leo of Palatine, Illinois.

Tim Schroeder of Two Rivers, Wisconsin agrees, arguing that "the best alternative to closing parishes would be for the church to allow married priests and women priests."

Msgr. Bendik says, "I'd welcome back resigned and married priests who are willing to do ministry for the church, even if only sacramental ministry. We have several wonderful resigned priests in our parish."

While changes such as these seem unlikely in the near future, the large number of alternatives to parish closure offered by U.S. Catholic readers illustrates the central role of the parish in the life of many American Catholics. With more parish closures likely in the future, bishops and diocesan officials would do well to listen closely to the voices of those affected by past closings.

And while U.S. Catholic readers have diverse views on many aspects of this issue, there is a strong desire for early and honest communication, substantive input by laypeople into the decision-making process, sufficient notice to allow a parish community time to grieve and to consider its options, and assistance in transitioning parishioners to new parishes, particularly elderly and disabled individuals.

There will probably never be a time when the closing of a parish does not produce anger and frustration among those affected. But how the process is handled can make the difference between causing wounds that fester and those that ultimately heal.

This article appeared in the August 2005 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 70, No. 8).