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Archdiocese facing priest shortage

Committee urges staffing changes

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston is facing a sharp reduction in the number of active priests over the next several years and will have to dramatically change the way it staffs parishes or face another round of church closings, a committee appointed by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley has declared.

In a 13-page report recently delivered to priests, the committee said that the number of active priests -- those who are not retired or sick -- will drop to 292, from 500, within eight years. That is primarily because nearly 30 percent of the priests now working in parishes are over age 65.

"If no proactive diocesan-wide planning approach, guided by the archbishop [O'Malley], is undertaken, the archdiocese faces a continuing series of parish closings resulting especially from staffing limitations and financial problems," the report says. "It will also face the hurt and anger accompanying such closings."

O'Malley has already closed 62 parishes, starting in 2004, in an effort to address a decline in the number of priests and worshipers and a financial crunch, and many of those closings were controversial; a handful of the closed parishes are still occupied by protesters, and several civil suits and canon law challenges prompted by the closings are pending.

O'Malley's predecessor, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, had closed 42 parishes between 1994 and 2003.

The committee, made up of priests and laypeople, declares in urgent tones that the archdiocese must consider steps already taken by many other dioceses around the country, including greater collaboration between priests in neighboring parishes and a greater use of deacons and lay ministers for pastoral care and business managers for financial matters. And the document suggests some measures that are sure to be controversial, such as allowing parishes to declare that there will be no funerals on certain days of the week, or allowing parishes to hold Communion services, rather than Masses, because the church's rules do not require a priest for Communion services.

The report encourages O'Malley to embrace a "culture of planning" in the archdiocese, and to get Catholics talking about the implications of the clergy shortage.

The document does not mention two solutions advocated by some liberals, but barred by the Vatican: eliminating the requirement for priest celibacy or allowing the ordination of women.

The report also does not address the possibility that the number of priests ordained under the current rules might increase, either as result of prayer and recruitment, as O'Malley has suggested, or as a result of importing more seminarians and priests from foreign countries.

The document notes that instead of closing parishes, other dioceses facing clergy shortages have assigned pastors to more than one parish.

Others have used lay "pastoral administrators" to oversee parishes, or have attempted some form of "coordinated ministry" in which worship services and other programs are shared by several parishes.

A spokesman for the archdiocese, Terrence C. Donilon , praised the committee but noted that none of its recommendations has been endorsed by O'Malley.

The committee is one of three established by the cardinal to examine challenges facing the archdiocese; the others are examining the state of marriage in the archdiocese, and the transmission of faith.

"The study that has been prepared is merely a draft report with a long-term eye towards the future care of the archdiocese," Donilon said. "Its findings and recommendations are under review. No decisions have been made with regards to the recommendations in this report and none are imminent."

Donilon said the "interest in vocations" in the archdiocese is increasing, but "we know we are faced with dwindling numbers of clergy and we are addressing that."

"We would be acting irresponsibly if we did not take an aggressive -- but thoughtful -- look at the issues before us," Donilon said. "But I want to stress, we are not operating from the same playbook as years past. We are not planning Reconfiguration 2. It is not in the game plan."

A priest who has read the plan said there is no appetite among diocesan priests for another round of church closings, but there is a recognition that the archdiocese must do something to address the dwindling number of clergy.

"The most recent closing experience was one that made people feel as though parishes were being voted off the island -- it was a very sobering experience and it caused so much unrest, it would be crazy to think about that as a solution going forward," said Monsignor Paul V. Garrity , pastor of St. Mary parish in Lynn. "If we adopt that notion that we're going to close parishes because we don't have priests, we ought to just close the whole operation down."

But Garrity also praised the report, saying it calls attention to trends that have been widely known but little discussed.

"This is the first time the archdiocese officially has put down on paper what a lot of people have been talking about for years -- the number of priests has been declining for decades," Garrity said. "Boston is slow to change and recognize the realities, but other parts of the country people have already experienced these things. At some point, we have to say, what do we want to be doing, what are the priorities, and who do we have to do that with?"

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.