National Media Cover Parishioner Appeals

Over the past two months, national mainstream and Catholic media published a plethora of stories about Catholic parishioners appealing the closing of their vibrant parishes. Articles and feature stories have appeared in The New York Times, Time Magazine, National Catholic Reporter and aired on ABC World News Tonight.

Model for Church of the Future?  On January 6, The New York Times carried a front page story about 100 parishioners who have maintained a vigil at St. Frances Cabrini parish in Scituate, Massachusetts, for over four years.   St. Frances is one of four Boston parishes that have maintained round-the-clock vigils after the Boston archdiocese sought to suppress some 80 parishes, in part to pay clergy sex abuse bills.  Parishioners have been running the parish, leading communion services with hosts provided by a sympathetic priest, and providing other prayer experiences for those keeping vigil. Many describe themselves as having been transformed from passive Catholics to deeply involved members of a community that they believe could be a model for the future of the Church. “You would think because there are fewer and fewer priests that the various archdioceses would welcome a new configuration,” said longtime parishioner, Margy O'Brien,“Let the lay people do everything but the sacramental.” On January 26, ABC World News Tonight aired an investigative report on St. Frances Cabrini and the struggle of parishioners in Boston and New Orleans to keep their parishes open.

Vigils as Mourning? On January 19, Time magazine published an article about parishioners in Adams, Massachusetts, who, on December 26, began a 24-hour vigil at St. Stanislas Kostka, a century-old Polish parish in the Springfield diocese.  Church leaders said it was clear that two of the three parishes in Springfield had to close because of “an acute shortage of priests” and declining attendance.  “Suffering the closing of your parish is like watching a parent die," said Monsignor Bonzagni, the diocese's director of pastoral planning. "If the parishioners at St. Stan's need to mourn this way, we will do nothing to interfere."  

New Orleans Calls for Removal of Archbishop.  Monsignor Bonzagni's position is a far cry from that of New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes, who had parishioners arrested and forcibly removed in handcuffs from two parishes in which they had conducted vigils for 72 days.  The parishioners subsequently sent an envoy to the Vatican with a petition containing nearly 500 signatures asking Pope Benedict XVI to name a successor to Hughes “ ‘at the earliest practical time’ in light of Hughes’ management of the Archdiocese of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.” On January 30, Peter Borre, founder of a national group called the Council of Parishes, delivered the petitions and a packet of materials to a monsignor at the Congregation of Bishops in Rome.  The packet included video of the New Orleans police removing handcuffed parishioners from Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. Borre reported he had “no substantive conversation” with officials, but just handed over the materials.

NCR: The Future is Now.  On January 23, the National Catholic Reporter published an analytical and insightful overview of parish reconfigurations throughout the US.  Editor at large Tom Roberts quoted FutureChurch’s Sr. Chris Schenk at length about the need to keep viable parish communities together for mission. “My point is that we have Catholics who want to be in the urban region. We may be in the suburbs but we go [to the inner city] because of the apostolic mission of the community,” [Schenk] said. “We want to make that mission attractive to as many Catholics as possible and serve urban poor communities. If they are viable, vibrant communities, why would we consolidate them just because we don't have enough priests? Sustain the mission with parish life coordinators and a priest for sacramental purposes.”  The paper also ran an astute editorial pointing to the national conversation already taking place by such groups as the National Association for Lay Ministry and the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project about using lay ministers, women religious and deacons for staffing parishes. The editorial concludes:  “The future, which will require new structures, deeper involvement of lay ministers and a more mature sense of what constitutes a parish, is not somewhere down the road. It is now.”

Parishioner Advocacy Groups Growing.  After the Scranton Diocese announced its decision to close 91 of its 209 parishes, a new group calling itself the Council of Parishes of Scranton/Wilkes Barre was formed by the Sacred Heart-Wilkes Barre Foundation, which was itself founded to preserve an historic, ethnic church, Sacred Heart in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. This brings the total number of known US groups appealing parish closings to thirteen.


Focus on FutureChurch

Winter 2009


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