Parishioners from eight dioceses seek mediation for parish closings

WASHINGTON – Parishioners from 31 groups in eight U.S. dioceses have joined forces to ask the Vatican to suspend parish closings and to instruct bishops to negotiate the closures with local Catholics.

In an 18-page letter delivered April 7 to several Vatican offices, the parish representatives said the decision to close hundreds of parishes across the country has left the U.S. Catholic Church at a “ ‘tipping point’ of permanent damage and irreversible decline.”

Peter Borre, co-chairman of the Boston-based Council of Parishes, formed in 2004 to oppose parish closings, said the effort is meant to offer a “third way” for the Catholic Church to respond to changing demographics, financial concerns and the declining number of priests nationwide.

“We are asking the Secretariat of State to basically instruct U.S. bishops to suspend, not roll back, parish closings and to urge bishops in the eight dioceses we name to enter into mediation with parishioner groups,” Mr. Borre told Catholic News Service from Rome April 7.

“What we are suggesting is that this issue should be taken up as a matter of policy rather than be confined to the legal canon law channels,” he said.

Mr. Borre said copies of the letter were delivered to Monsignor Pietro Parolin, Vatican undersecretary of state; Archbishop Maura Piacenza, secretary of the Congregation for Clergy; Monsignor Andrew Baker of the Congregation for Bishops; Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature; and Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office.

In addition to parishioners in the Boston Archdiocese, other worshippers involved in the request are from the New York and New Orleans archdioceses and the dioceses of Allentown, Pa., Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland, Scranton, Pa., and Springfield, Mass.

Mr. Borre said the effort to seek mediation was being taken “because lots of viable parishes are getting destroyed.”

The group points to the recent closing or the planned closing of 1,000 U.S. parishes as the reason for its concern.

“This is really timed for Holy Week in a spirit of good will to basically see if we can work something out at the local level,” Borre said.

A business executive, Borre explained that the formal appeal effort outlined by canon law and undertaken by parishioners at suppressed parishes across the country has not resulted in the reversal of decisions on parish closings by local bishops.

“We have researched as carefully as we can and in the last 40 years we have not found a single instance where a parishioner’s appeal at the highest level of the Vatican judicial system has been granted,” Mr. Borre told CNS in explaining why the group is seeking mediation.

The effort comes as the Vatican is reportedly nearing a decision on the appeals of several parish suppressions in the Boston Archdiocese. In five of those churches, parishioners have maintained a vigil for up to 54 months, at four churches since October 2004, and at the fifth since May 2005. Four other parishes whose closings were appealed after parishioners began their vigils subsequently were reopened by Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley.

Parishioners involved in similar vigils at parishes designated for closing in New Orleans in 2009, New York in 2008 and Boston in 2004 were arrested by police. The letter said mediation would offer an opportunity for the Catholic Church to avoid negative publicity and damage to the pastoral credibility of bishops if they undertake similar steps against people occupying closed parishes.

Cardinal O’Malley has said no action would be taken in Boston until the Vatican’s decisions are announced.

“Having been deeply involved with these vigil groups, these groups will act reasonably and responsibly as mainstream Catholics (to the mediation process),” Borre told CNS.

“We want to preserve these Catholic faith communities,” he added. “We’re not using the word parish. These communities (if they reopen) will not only have to be financially self-sufficient; they will have to be in a position to contribute their fair share to the archdiocese.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.