Chicago’s parish reorganization plan: renewal or death spiral?

Chicago’s parish reorganization plan: renewal or death spiral? February 6, 2016


This is something about which news has been dribbling out for the past year:  a major reorganization plan in the Archdiocese of Chicago.  According to the local NBC station,

Archbishop Blasé Cupich is embarking on a major reorganization in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

In what’s being called a sweeping change of landscape, priests have been told that in the next 14 years 80 to 100 Chicago-area parishes could be forced to merge or close, sources told NBC Chicago.

Though the Archdiocese would not confirm the number of reported closures, at least one priest who has been briefed on the plan says it is driven partially by finances, “but mostly it’s the number of priests available 14 years from now.”

The Archdiocese projects by 2030 there will only be 240 priests to serve the city’s 351 parishes. Currently, those parishes are served by 772 priests.

Priests who have attended the recent meetings with Cupich, and prefer not to be named, say in the next two years 17 parishes are expected to close as the reorganization plan begins. It’s not clear which parishes will be included in those closures, however.

The Chicago Tribune reports with more depth (go here for a google-search link), but also emphasizes two factors:  lack of priests, and lack of resources for the rehab work needed at many of the aging city parishes.  But Cupich isn’t going to just look at individual parish financial needs but will close/reorganize parishes across the archdiocese, as the decisions will be delegated to auxiliary bishops and

Cupich also has emphasized to advisers, including the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, that the process will take an egalitarian approach and no parish will be left out. Affluent parishes bursting at the seams will feel the pinch too, he has said.

What does that mean?  Sounds like this is meant to function like a business restructuring, or integration processes after a merger, in which each operating unit is simply told to find X% savings, without regard to how efficiently they were operating relative to other aspects of the business, or what potential for synergy there actually exists in the group.  (When my firm went through such a process, we conveniently “fired” two highly paid individuals who were on the verge of retirement anyway.)

Is my own parish “bursting at the seams”?  No, it’s been a while since the main mass was consistently filled.  I imagine that some of the far northern suburbs might be in this situation, if their building plans hadn’t kept up with their growth due to that suburb’s growth in population, say in the 90s and early 2000s.

But let’s face it:  we’ve lost numbers not because the neighborhood’s demographics have changed, with more Protestants moving in and Catholics moving out.  We’ve lost numbers because people are leaving the Catholic Church, or simply losing interest in regular mass attendance.  And taking actions, out of “fairness” to inner city churches, that cause suburban parishes to “feel the pinch,” are only going to cut attendance, membership numbers, and collections, perhaps not by losing out to the competition, but by losing out to an increased number of people simply walking away.

Yes — there are legitimate concerns about building maintenance, and these need to be addressed, though this is not the first round of closings, and I’d guess that the low-hanging fruit, the parishes in close proximity to neighboring churches, where each church once served a large immigrant community (Czechs vs. Poles, for instance) in their native language, have already been closed, though I don’t really know, and neither the Trib article nor similar reporting provides details on just how empty the pews at any particular church are.

As to the issue of the priest shortage?  It simply doesn’t make sense to project the math out based on 2015 trends, in this fashion.  Would you say that eventually, should there be only one priest left, every Catholic in the Chicago area will be obliged to come to the United Center for Sunday mass?  No, of course not.  Assuming that leadership is already doing everything they can to recruit new priests (and I’m not going to claim any expertise in the debate about whether men are being unfairly excluded because they’re too traditionalist, or not extroverted enough, and I’m certainly not going to discuss the issue of married priests), then it seems to me that the focus ought to be on lay ministers, and creating the Pastoral Associate job as a meaningful path for ministry for men and women, so that, where necessary, lay people can do the day-to-day work of running the parish in cases where a priest isn’t available, with a loaner priest for Sunday mass.

What’s more, so far as I understand, the “Sunday obligation” and the requirement that one attend, not just a worship service, but mass specifically, on Sundays, is not something fixed in stone as an unchanging doctrine of the faith, but something with more flexibility and opportunity for modification, in the same way as each country has different Holy Days of Obligation, and, post-Vatican II, the rules on Friday meatlessness were changed.  It would be far better to provide dispensations for a set of churches to have alternating priest-presided masses and lay-presided communion services, than to force multiple already-large parishes to consolidate into one Willow Creek-sized megachurch.

(I could be wrong here, and have an article to read on a similar controversy in Germany, but the article’s in German, so it’ll take a while to work through it.)

Hence:  the death spiral is a real risk; if each round of closings causes ever more people to walk away, and ever more future priests to never even be brought up in the Church, short-term practical measures will have lasting harm.

Having said all that:  Cupich, in his Catholic New World archdiocesan newspaper column, tried to put the best face on it, spending multiple paragraphs on a goal of parish renewal, of parishes that are vital, with parishioners supporting each other and the community at large, before referencing, obliquely, the task at hand:

The mission of proclaiming Christ, who died and rose to save the world, will require a church that is made ever vibrant and more vital by the sacrifices of every generation. It also will require a church whose community is united in taking up this work. Indeed, we all have a stake in this renewal.

Over the next few weeks and months, you will be hearing more about this effort as we engage various groups in a series of consultations, some of which have already begun with our clergy. As I wrote in a letter to all parishes last October, the archdiocese has changed in significant ways over the past several decades. Demographics have shifted dramatically. Some of our parish buildings are in disrepair. We have fewer priests to pastor our faith communities. The result is that we end up spreading our resources too thinly. We should not be afraid to face these realities, but rather see this moment as a graced opportunity to chart new ways to live out our mission more fully.

Addressing this situation will require a good deal of prayer and humility, hard work, tough choices and new sacrifices. I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge that by the time this consultative process is complete, we will mourn together the loss of some parishes. But that will not be the final word. By having the boldness to leave behind familiar ways of doing things, we can seize this season as one that is not simply of loss, but rather of renewal. This is the dream God is calling us to, and that will sustain and unite us.

Is he right, that this process can lead to renewal?  Or is this just another politician’s fluff to hide the reality of his plans?

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