BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The role of the individual parish in the Archdiocese of Boston, which has been the foundation of the Catholic church in this area for more than a century, is about to change. And the change could start here in Salem.
Next month, Cardinal Sean O’Malley will announce the first phase of a pastoral plan that has been two years in the making. It will start with the designation of about a dozen working collaboratives, or groupings of parishes, within the Archdiocese.
Salem’s four Catholic churches — Immaculate Conception, St. Anne, St. James and St. John the Baptist — are under consideration to be in that first phase, a select group that will lay out a path for the rest of the Archdiocese to follow over the next five years, a top church official said last night.
“Nobody is further along in the (planning) process,” the Rev. Paul Soper, director of pastoral planning for the Archdiocese, told more than 150 Catholics packed into a school hall at Immaculate Conception Church last night. “We’re really hoping you guys are willing to be a phase-one collaborative.”
Soper stressed, however, that the decision will be made by the cardinal.
This shift to collaboratives is an admission by the Archdiocese that the mass closing of parishes in 2004 was a failure.
This is a restructuring of parishes, rather than shuttering, but it represents an attempt to deal with the same problems the church faced a decade ago: dwindling Mass attendance, fewer priests and weak finances.
It is an effort, Soper said, to make parishes stronger by pooling resources, and to allow the Archdiocese, through these collaboratives, to focus on its most important job: recruitment of new Catholics and growing the church.
Even so, the collaborative strategy raises a new set of concerns, many of which were voiced last night by an audience made up largely of older Catholics.
At the end of the one-hour meeting, Soper asked for a show of hands of those for and against Salem being in the first group of collaboratives. The majority of the crowd appeared to favor going ahead.
But there were strong feelings on both sides of the issue.
Several parishioners advised Soper that Salem was not ready to make that first step.
Lucy Corchado, who is active in the Hispanic Apostolate at Immaculate Conception, said the timetable for making changes is “aggressive” and being done with little input from parishioners.
“I think we should slow the thing down,” said Joe O’Keefe, a city councilor and member of the finance council at Immaculate Conception.
Several others noted that a task force made up of members of all four parishes has been meeting for almost two years on this issue.
Two members of the task force urged Salem to be in the first phase, arguing that the situation for the Catholic Church will only get worse the longer the wait.
“It’s a risk, no doubt, to be in phase one,” said Kathleen Keefe Ternes. “But we also have an opportunity to be the conductors on the train and not just the cars coming behind. ... I’m ready to go forward.”
“We cannot afford to lose any more time because the clock is ticking. ... Our spiritual clock is ticking,” said Anne Devoe. “We’re losing our youth, we’re losing our elderly. ... We can’t sustain ourselves as we are now.”
The schedule for the first phase of collaboratives was also announced.
The cardinal plans to name the 12 to 15 collaboratives in January and name a pastor for each new church grouping in March. The collaboratives will formally begin on July 1.
Most collaboratives will have two to three churches. If Salem is selected, its four churches will make up one of the largest groups.
Each collaborative will have a pastor, a pastoral team (i.e. staff), a parish council and a finance council.
Questions were asked about the fate of the current pastors if they are not selected as the new pastor for the collaborative. While there is no definite answer, Soper said older priests may stay on as parochial vicars to assist the new pastor, while younger priests could be assigned to a new collaborative.
Soper said that, once the collaboratives are announced in a few weeks, the current pastors in each of those collaboratives will have to resign. Priests received letters explaining that step in the past few days.
Current pastors can apply to be pastor of the new collaborative, but the position is also open the outside priests. All pastors at every church in the collaboratiive will stay on until the new collaboratives become operational on July 1.
There were also concerns about the Polish Mass at St. John the Baptist and the Spanish Masses at Immaculate Conception. Soper assured the crowd that those will continue.
Priests within the collaborative may move into one rectory. The move, however, is recommended, not required, so it is being left up to each collaborative to decide the housing arrangement, Soper said.
Soper stressed that the plan is to keep all churches open within the collaborative, although he said it is impossible to guarantee that if one parish becomes financially insolvent.
There will still be Masses at individual churches, although the number of services and hours could change.
“We’re not intending there to be a church in which there are no Masses,” Soper said.
Over the next five years, the Archdiocese plans to transition its 288 parishes into 135 working collaboratives focused on adding new parishioners The pastors and members of the pastoral teams all will go through extensive training in evangelization, Soper said.
“This is not a retrenching, it’s not a downsizing by any means,” Soper said in the interview. “It’s an attempt to strengthen our parishes to be the center of the new evangelization.”
Churches are being given new life, Soper said, in the hope of growing the church by bringing lapsed Catholics back into the fold and by recruiting new members — something the church can accomplish only on a foundation of strong parishes
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.