THE BOSTON VIRUS, XXXIX

Reconfiguration Consternation

Today we continue our exclusive Boston Catholic Insider series on the next phase of parish reconfiguration in the Boston archdiocese.  Just to get new readers up-to-speed, we started with Chancellor Spills Beans to vigilers at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Boston regarding future plans to consolidate parishes, we then talked in Vigil Vigilance about the ongoing church occupancies and a proven way to end them  (which no one is acting on still) that would also dramatically lower the cost to the Archdiocese of maintaining those shuttered churches, and yesterday in Vicar General, Moderator of the Furious, we gave some background on Fr. Richard Erikson, who has parish pastoral planning under his limited scope of responsibility and will apparently be a spokesperson on the plans going forward.

We offer you today two areas to ponder: Fr. Erikson’s most recent comments, and a sense for the hodge-podge of planning efforts he attempts to rationlize in his Pilot column.

Vicar General’s Most Recent Comments

Here are excerpts from Fr. Erikson’s email to priests and column in The Pilot, called “Inspired by a Man on a Mission”:

He [St. Paul] would go to the ends of the earth, and lay

down his life, so that people would come to know, love and serve Jesus Christ and so that vibrant communities of faith would be established.  Two thousand years later, we are carrying on St. Paul’s zeal and mission through evangelization and mission-centered planning for our future….Accompanying these efforts, and being driven by the same mission, is a renewed comprehensive effort at pastoral planning…

The more recent planning initiatives find their roots in the 1988 Synod that established the Office of Planning and Research and the formation of clusters of parishes to begin working together to find common goals in 1994.  Our archdiocese is indebted to Fr. Robert MacMillan, SJ, Mr. Harry Foden and Sr. Mary Anne Doyle, CSJ for their generous efforts…

Continuing in the spirit of St. Paul, and with the dedicated guidance and leadership of Fr. George Evans, the 2007 Pastoral Planning Report (available at www.bostoncatholic.org, click on pastoral planning) captured various voices and perspectives and called for a “culture of planning” throughout the Archdiocese, along with an “infrastructure that can sustain effective pastoral planning at all levels.”  The work of Fr. Evans and his committee demonstrated the fact that we are at a critical juncture, a turning point in the history of our archdiocese, as our parishes are challenged by a smaller pool of available clergy, changing demographics, tighter finances, and a secularized culture.   Sr. Marian Batho, CSJ, brought the challenges and perspectives of the Pastoral Planning Report to the people of our archdiocese through a year-long process of consultations on the report.

In 2009, motivated by the recommendations of the Pastoral Planning Report and by the feedback from the consultations, Cardinal Seán hired Director, Fr. David Couturier, OFM. Cap., and Associate Director, Mr. Joshua Phelps for our Office of Pastoral Planning.  Fr. Couturier and Mr. Phelps have been tireless in assisting the archdiocese in mission-centered planning for our future.

Hodge-Podge of Planning Efforts

Readers should immediately notice the variety of people, approaches, and ecclesiologies referenced in this message. We have a hired Jesuit, a hired Capuchian, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and a diocesan priest known for wanting “priestless parishes” among the players.  Not mentioned was another Capucian, Br. James Peterson OFM, who was also briefly involved in this effort.  One can only imagine the starts and stops, as well as the conflicting agendas and theological viewpoints of the participants over time.

For example, the Fr. Evans group included a very diverse group of people, some of whom have controversial histories and have been described by our sources as holding “radical” views.  They asked for comments and suggestions from just about everybody.  Yet, a number of people with experience in this area submitted plans or solid ideas, and we are told that Fr. Evans either refused to share all of these ideas with the committee for consideration or failed to include all good ideas shared with the committee in the final report.  Several sources report that Fr. Evans’ goal was driving toward “priestless parishes”—an idea also backed by people he consulted with such as Fr. Bryan Hehir and Msgr. Dennis Sheehan.  Coincidentally, he may have had some axe to grind with the former Vicar General, Bishop Lennon, so after Bishop Lennon left for Cleveland, he angled to be appointed to this planning position.   Here is the Evans’ report.   You will note that it includes a potpourri of ideas for consideration but basically no real recommendations.  That is because the committee could not get to consensus on anything other than “Cardinal Sean should look into X, Y, and Z and then decide what he wants to do.”

Before the Evans final report was announced, we hear that several people submitted their disregarded suggestions to the Cardinal.  Rumor has it that he liked many of the suggestions and sought to combine elements of them into one plan, but that new “plan” was not the Evans report. So when the Evans report came out, it received faint, half-hearted praise. Somewhere along the way, the input to the process from the theologically conservative Assistant to the Moderator of the Curia for Canonical Affairs, Br. Jim Peterson, OFM, was apparently trampled or diregarded (by Fr. Bryan Hehir who would have not wanted anything that could possibly affect Jack Connors to get through to the Cardinal), so we are told Br. Peterson gave up on participating in that initiative.  After the Evans report came out and the dust settled on that, in May of 2009 Cardinal O’Malley sent for his Capuchin colleague, Fr. David Couturier, and they were off to the races with yet another “plan.”

Who is Fr. Couturier?  Here is the press release announcing his appointment.

As a Capucian, he wears the same kind of brown robe as Cardinal O’Malley, and we are told he and Chancellor McDonough are not exactly drinking buddies.  Could be because Couturier comes across as having more backbone than the average Pastoral Center staffer that the Chancellor can manipulate, and he  also seems to have nothing to gain or lose from the McDonough/Connors/Hehir regime.  (Perhaps Jack Connors has had his fill of mundane parish closings after previously meddling on the Meade-Eisner commission, and he has now turned his sights toward bigger and better things, like controlling the money flow into the archdiocese and getting more property assets for BC and Partners?)  Couturier has the benefit of also being a Capuchin, and the reality is that Cardinal O’Malley tends to listen to other Capuchins, even if their ecclesiological bent is different than his own.

We know little about the other person mentioned, Associate Director of Planning, Joshua Phelps, except that he has a B.A. (2005) and M.A. in Philosophy (2007) from Boston College, has experience with research strategies, and was a pastoral associate for the archdiocese before this job.  He also somehow made it through an interview/selection process in which some combination of Fr. Erikson and/or Chancellor McDonough managed to frighten off other well-qualified candidates for the job.

Anyway, this 2009 document, “Developing a Pastoral Plan for Parish Staffing” is basically Fr. Couturier’s plan for a plan.  It says that a plan was to be submitted by March of 2010.  Such a plan has not been released publicly yet.  We do know that it was tough to arrive at a plan that satisfied his boss, Fr. Thomas Foley (the Cabinet Secretary for the Parish Life and Leadership Secretariat) and Cardinal Sean.  Even if no “churches” were to close–and some probably will–a key issue was the number of “parishes” to group individual “churches” into.  Will the magic number be in the neighborhood of 50 parishes?  Will it be 150 parishes?  The archdiocese wants to start rolling this out in January of 2011, and though nothing has been publicly confirmed, we have some sense for the number of “parishes” they are aiming for.  Anyone wishing to weigh-in on what you think can do so via email or comments.

Something important to note in this process–and what no one is mentioning publicly–is the demographic reality of the priest-to-Church-going Catholic ratio.  We will talk about that next time, as well as what you might expect to see going forward in the Boston Archdiocesan pastoral plans.

In the meantime, the vigils at shuttered parishes apparently continue. 

At $4,100/day in cost and 93 days since the Archdiocese learned the Vatican had denied the final appeal, that has cost the archdiocese an additional $380,000.  What ministry is suffering for lack of these funds because the Archdiocese lacks the will to simply do what they have proven works already?  Who is in charge of decision-making in this area?

ps. Note to Chancellor McDonough: primary sources for this post are NOT at 66 Brooks Drive

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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