Let me be candid: there will soon be a real sense of grief at some of our parishes as we get set to announce publicly what we’ve been preparing for the last five years, namely, the merging of some of our beloved parishes. In a few places, there might even be a feeling that something has died.
Perhaps the feast days this Saturday and Sunday can set a spiritual tone for what will be, undeniably, a tough time for us all, especially for the parishioners of the affected parishes.
Saturday, November 1, is the feast of All Saints (or, the old term, “All Hallows,” thus “Halloween,” the eve before), as we gratefully recall the citizens of our eternal home, heaven.
Sunday, November 2, is the feast of All Souls, when we reverently remember those, especially among our family and friends, who have died, the “faithful departed,” asking Jesus to have mercy upon them, especially those in purgatory awaiting heaven.
“By dying, He destroyed our death, by rising, He restored our life.”
Dying and rising ... Jesus did it; we all do it in and through Him.
As we now come to the decision point of our Making All Things New strategic pastoral planning, which began years ago and intensified the last year-and-a-half, about 14% of our parishes will undergo a “purgatory,” with decisions to merge them with their welcoming neighbors.
Some of our people will be sad, upset, critical, and even angry. Very understandable…loyal Catholic people love their parishes, and consider them their spiritual home. To see them changed or merged, even with next door parishes, will be very difficult.
I wish it could be different. I’d rather be adding parishes, or expanding the ones we have—and, by the way, we will be!—instead of consolidating some.
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.