By Jay Lindsay
---- — 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.
The goal is to lower costs and improve efficiency while shedding redundant resources, such as unneeded rectories or offices. A collaborative could decide to close a church building, but that takes Vatican approval and would need to go through the archdiocese.
The first collaboratives will be officially formed in July, and the plan would be phased in over five years, the archdiocese said.
If it succeeds in increasing church attendance, the archdiocese would be defying national trends. But O’Malley said the faith has broad appeal and a hold on large numbers who identify themselves as Catholics, even if they rarely attend Mass.
“Our call is to try and bring them a little closer to church and get them involved in their parishes in more of an ongoing way,” O’Malley said.
The reorganization includes intensive evangelization training for clergy and parish councils and an emphasis on cultivating candidates to boost the shrinking priesthood.
Thomas Groome, a Boston College theology professor, hailed the archdiocese for keeping parishes open and reaching out to lapsed Catholics.
But he said he doubted the reorganization could alleviate the coming priest shortage, and may just postpone an honest reckoning of it, which Groome believes includes accepting that married men should be allowed to serve as priests.
“To the people of God, the solutions are obvious,” he said.
Southwood said parishioners have concerns about who will be in their cluster and what role they’ll be asked to play in the re-evangelization. She said she’s ready to do her part.
“You have to be involved,” she said.