"This is a thunderclap…"

So says one analyst, sizing up the rare move by the Vatican to reverse a decision by a local bishop on some parish closures.

From the AP:

Like many Roman Catholics, Marie Lutkus felt anger, sadness and disillusionment after her beloved church was shut down in a consolidation of parishes.

St. Francis of Assisi had been her spiritual home since 1961. It’s the place where she was married, where her children and grandchildren were baptized, where she mourned the loss of her parents and brother. So when the doors were locked in 2008, Lutkus couldn’t simply let go.

Three years later, Lutkus and parishioners at eight other shuttered churches in Pennsylvania’s Allentown diocese have persuaded a Vatican panel to overturn the bishop’s decision to close them down — an exceedingly rare reversal that experts say may signal a policy shift on U.S. church closures.

“This is a thunderclap. I am absolutely floored,” said Charles Wilson, executive director of the Saint Joseph Foundation, a San Antonio, Texas-based group that helps Catholic laity navigate church law.

In a series of decisions that parishioner groups began receiving in January, the Congregation for the Clergy — the Vatican office in charge of the world’s 400,000 Catholic priests — said the bishop had failed to come up with a “grave reason” for shuttering the churches as required by Catholic law. The panel ruled that parishioners must be allowed to use the padlocked buildings for worship.

Around the same time, the Vatican also rejected attempts by the diocese of Springfield, Mass., to convert three church buildings from holy to secular use.

While a spokesman said the Allentown diocese is seeking clarification about the Vatican decrees, Wilson and other experts said the decisions should give hope to other parishioner groups fighting to save their places of worship.

“This is the first major, official pronouncement by the Congregation for the Clergy that gives relief to American parishioners challenging the suppression of their parishes,” said prominent Catholic activist Peter Borre of the Council of Parishes, which has spent years appealing church closures in the Boston area.

“It does not bring the parish back to life, but it puts on the table what could be a workable compromise: to physically re-open the locked-up church as a Catholic place of worship,” he said.

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