BRAINTREE — Cardinal Sean O’Malley on Thursday approved a plan to stabilize the Boston Archdiocese’s declining finances by combining its 288 parishes into 135 clusters that share staffing and resources.
The plan aims to keep parishes intact amid weak attendance, a looming priest shortage and decaying parish finances that have left 4 in 10 parishes unable to pay their bills. Meanwhile, the archdiocese is banking on an ongoing evangelization effort to bring Catholics back into the pews.
O’Malley said he sees the reorganization as key to a spiritual revival, and his message to parishes was simple: “They must refocus on outreach and evangelization. ... We can’t use all of our resources and time, just to serve the active Catholics in the community.”
Anne Southwood, head of the Boston-area council of the lay group Voice of the Faithful, said O’Malley’s announcement was an acknowledgement of how badly the church needs laypeople to bring it back to health.
“Basically, what they said today is, ‘We’re all they have,’” Southwood said.
Just 16 percent of Boston Catholics attend church, following a decade that saw the archdiocese battered by a clergy sex-abuse scandal and parish closings that shuttered dozens of local churches.
The archdiocese also is facing a priest shortage. About a fifth of the 420 active priests are 65 or older, and the church expects its number of active priest to fall under 200 in a decade.
The archdiocese planned the reorganization over two years, and decided early on against more painful closings.
“The possibilities collapse when we close a parish in a place,” said the Rev. Paul Soper, director of pastoral planning.
The clusters, or collaboratives, will consist of one to four parishes in the same area, each of which will retain its legal identity. The collaboratives will be led by a single pastor and run by merged clergy and layperson staffs and councils.