Nevermind about parades and synods. The big news in New York in coming days will be the parish mergers and closings that are imminent in the Archdiocese of New York. Changing vocational, economical, community realities make it a matter of good stewardship to make hard choices. Cardinal Timothy Dolan tries to get ahead of the headlines with a pastoral plea for prayerful participation in what will be an early Lenten journey for many; in his column in Catholic New York, he writes:
Why do we have to go through this? For one, at 368, we simply have too many parishes, in areas that used to have huge Catholic numbers, where most of the people have since moved away. On Manhattan alone, for instance, we have 88 parishes, some only blocks apart. Do the math: we have about 25% of our parishes in an area where less than 12% of the 2.8 million Catholics of the archdiocese reside.
Two, we must be good stewards of our financial resources. God’s people have told us that they want their offerings spent on our schools, charities, outreach, elders, religious education, the poor, the immigrant, our pastoral services, or expanding parishes that are jammed. By merging parishes, we will make better use of human and financial resources.
Three, we can no longer staff them. While still, thank God, blessed with a good number of priests, aided by deacons, a dwindling number of sisters and brothers, and devoted lay pastoral leaders, their census is shrinking. Rectories built a century ago—now in disrepair—for six priests usually now house one or two. We no longer have the priests to serve 368 parishes.
What we’re talking about is realism. Families do it, our schools have done it, corporations do it—now our parishes must do it: we merge in the areas where the population has shrunk, and build and expand—both plants and ministries—in areas where the Catholic numbers are bustling.
Over these years of preparation for the tough decisions coming this week, everyone has commented: “We need to do something! We can’t go on like we’re still in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, as if we have the numbers, the resources, the priests that we used to. We’ll have to reduce the number of parishes.”But that’s usually followed by, “But, don’t close mine!”
We have to … a woman reassured me, “As long as I have a place for Mass, I’ll be fine.”
This “process” has been exhaustive. Each parish had two representatives, and the vast archdiocese was divided into “clusters” where the delegates, with their pastors, guided by professionals, studied their parishes and made recommendations. These were refined, discussed, debated, and finally went to the larger umbrella committee, which accepted almost all of them. The deans, priests’ council, pastoral council, and college of consultors were all involved. It all then came to me, and, along with my brother bishops, we’ve made the decisions. I’m happy to say almost all are consonant with what came from the grassroots.
I was with many of my brother bishops from around the country last week, a good number of whom have already gone through a similar process, and I asked them about their experience. One observed, “While there is no painless way to merge parishes, it can be less painful if the people have a big part in the process.” You have. (It’s already clear that some of the early complaints are coming from parishes that did not care to participate in the process.)
Pope St. John Paul II called us to the new evangelization: we cannot, he told us, be so exhausted by the maintenance of our parishes and institutions that we have no energy left for the mission!
Pope Benedict reminded us that “the vine must be pruned if it is to grow and produce fruit.”
Pope Francis exhorts us not to be only about buildings and structures, but about outreach, love, service.
That’s what this week is about: dying, to be sure, and I apologize that these decisions will cause hurt; but rising to a stronger, more vibrant Church! Thanks for your patience, understanding, and support.
When Cardinal O’Malley in Boston made some hard decisions about reconfigurations there, he said:
Closing a parish does not mean an end to the book, just a chapter in the story of life and faith that is being written everyday of our life as a Church.
We do this in parish life, but also in everything we do. That New Evangelization involves creative communities of apostolic life rooted in sacrament and the Gospel, never keeping our faith confined to a church building.
Even as many have to part with beloved homes — a passion and cross — there is a rebuilding and renewing and replenishing, and, yes, new life.
But as with so much, New Yorkers facing these farewells don’t need our commentary so much as our prayers during emotional days and weeks and months to come.