Trouble in Charles River City

The ArchDiocese of Boston is contracting. Like a balloon left out in the cold, it is shrinking. And like captains of a sinking ship, the bishops are scrambling for a way to keep afloat.

Last December, Cardinal Sean O'Malley announced the beginning of a process of parish re-alignment that will see pastors administering more parishes. A pastor who ran 1 or 2 parishes may see himself running 3 or 4. The good news, I suppose, is that the ArchD will avoid the huge outcry and bad press of a few years ago: no churches are being closed. The bad news...well, I'll save that for later.
Like any decent business in an economic downturn, the Church is trying to do more with less. I'll let the bishops speak for themselves:
The present way in which pastoral services are structured in the Archdiocese of Boston is not healthy and it cannot be sustained much longer. Priests are being stretched too thinly; pastoral associates and religious educators are not being replaced in sufficient numbers; permanent deacons are unevenly deployed; and we face a growing number of parishes (40%) unable to pay their bills, even as the cost for services in our parishes continues to climb.
...we are going from 346 priests available for parish ministry today to about 185 in about nine years’ time...

Basic message: not enough leaders; not enough money. What to do?
You might imagine a number of possible solutions: train more priests and deacons; have more bake sales and bingos. But the problems are serious when 40% of your "franchises" aren't breaking even. If the church was Kmart or Sears, the answer might be easy: close down under-performing shops and concentrate on the profitable ones. But (good news again) the Church is trying to maintain its presence in as many towns and neighborhoods as it can. Say what you will about our bishops -- at least they aren't giving up so easily.

Here's the archdiocese's strategy in a nutshell:
  • Create geographically-close "collaboratives" of parishes from 2, 3 or even 4 existing parishes
  • Manage the collaborative with a single pastor, parish council and pastoral staff
  • The collaboratives will have one priest for every 1600 Mass attendees. When the ratio reaches 3200-to-1, they can have a vicar.
  • Make sure the collaborative can rake in at least $500,000 annually.
Tough love.
You might wonder about the wisdom of placing even heavier burdens on priests who are nearing or beyond retirement age. The graying of the priesthood is a real problem. With so few seminarians staged to replace their aging pastors, the solution will certainly not come from the young.
Think too about the people in the pews. With fewer priests, the slide toward parishes becoming "sacramental dispensaries" is high. If you think today's priests are aloof from day-to-day realities of their parishioners, imagine a world in which there are half as many priests -- sick, overworked, crotchety and literally dying to retire.

Yet the Archdiocese remains sanguine: "The 1600 to 1 ratio should allows a priest to conduct the services, do the pastoral visits, and meet the ordinary and unexpected needs of parishioners, along with the administrative tasks required of him."
Perhaps their expectations of priests are too low -- how many pastoral visits do you think one man can make before he's just going through the motions, dazedly blessing stop signs and rose bushes?
A priest I know suggests that the answer must come from rethinking the celibate, male priesthood. Certainly, celibacy is one impediment that keeps many mature, healthy men out of Roman collars. But more priests will not bring people back into the pews. For that, the Church would have to overcome much of its institutional baggage and habits.
For instance, it's a rare Catholic parish that truly functions as a community. Believe me, 1600 people at Mass on Sunday does not a community make. First of all, 1600 is too damned many people for most humans to relate to. Our poor primate brains can handle about 150 relationships before fritzing out. Pun intended: Catholic worship is not intended to be a mass experience! You can't relate to Jesus from the center of a mob. You can't see Jesus in others when you don't know the names and stories of the folks in the pews around you. In this faceless and lonely age, people need to be known and loved. Provide that, and you may start getting them back in the pews.
Next, the Church has to back off its most atavistic and brainless teachings. Sanctity of life is one thing, but allowing mothers to die rather than permitting life-saving abortions is stupid and heartless. Calling contraception immoral in a world with over 7 billion souls is suicide. Continuing to suggest that salvation cannot come but from the Catholic Church is not only wrong, but a sure loser in a world where people marry for love, and will ignore rigid teachings that cut their lovers and spouses out of heaven. And in a world where AIDS is a dagger at the heart of the poor, the church needs to stop hiding behind its mock-moral stance on abstinence as a the only realistic way to curb the disease.
Unlikely? Perhaps. But given the shrinking number of priests, the general indifference of parishioners to threats of hellfire and the ever-present need for humans to live in community, the ship's course has never been clearer. Whether our captains will steer us into the shoals or sail out into deeper waters is yet to be seen.