Laity, Bishops and Priests Struggle with Parish Closings

Camden Council of Parishes Plans Appeals. Parishioners from St. Vincent Pallotti parish in the diocese of Camden have received a letter from the Congregation for the Clergy indicating that they may continue their appeal challenging the Diocese of Camden's to merge their vibrant 900 family parish with another smaller parish. The group is a member of the Council of Parishes organized after Bishop Joseph Galante announced a plan in April 2008 to close half of Camden's 124 parishes. The number of active diocesan priests in the area is expected to fall from 165 to 85 or fewer by 2015. Spokesman Robert Walsh of the Council of Parishes for Southern New Jersey, said: "It is our intent that every parish should appeal once the bishop issues a decree," said Walsh, a member of Our Lady Queen of Peace parish in Pitman. "Our appeal is ready."

Scranton Bishop Resigns Under Duress. After a tumultuous six years in leadership, Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino, 63, resigned for health reasons in early September. While Martino admittedly faced formidable challenges with a declining budget and burgeoning priest shortage, many believe his autocratic decision-making contributed to his departure because it alienated Catholics in the diocese. Martino's decision to close four high schools and many elementary schools outraged parents because he turned a deaf ear to their promise to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the schools open. Shortly after the schools were restructured, Martino announced he would close about half the churches in the diocese. This led to eight parishioner appeals, most of which are now in Rome. Two Scranton Catholics, Noreen and Anthony Foti, are leading the appeal to keep their own Sacred Heart Parish open. They said in the entire history of the diocese only 29 parishes had been suppressed and Martino's decision to close or merge 115 parishes was "unprecedented." Both are "encouraged at the prospect of a new bishop." (Scranton Times-Leader 8/29/09)

Sioux Falls Study Group Works to Keep Parishes Open. In Sioux Falls, SD, Bishop Paul Swain has asked for alternative plans for dealing with the priest shortage because he projects that in 2016, there will be only 55 active priests to serve 118 parishes in this rural diocese. Under a diocesan plan offered last February, 35 parishes could lose their regular Mass by 2012. But a study group representing 10 Catholic parishes is considering a proposal that would keep area churches open. While such a plan is an advantage to parishioners, the burden on priests is very heavy. "I say four Masses in a weekend now, and I am very stretched," said Rev. Bob Lacey who asked the committee to consider the potential problems for parishes whose Masses and other activities are rotated when sharing a priest. (Press and Dakotan 10/27/09)

Vatican Upholds Parishioner Appeal of Closed of British Parish. In late summer, the Congregation for the Clergy ruled that a 2008 decision by Bishop Brian Noble to close an historic church in the diocese of Shrewsbury was a violation of canon law. The ruling noted that 57% of the congregation had wanted the parish to stay open and Canon 1222 states that a church should only be closed if it causes no detriment to "the good of souls." Fran McGowan, who led the parishioner appeal said "The bishop is supposed to listen to the faithful according to Canon 385, but he has not done so." (The Tablet 8/22/09)

Cleveland Catholics Continue Activism. A group of lay Catholics concerned about the loss of 50 parishes in the Cleveland Diocese is asking Rome to appoint a coadjutor bishop to work alongside Bishop Richard G. Lennon. At a Sept. 24 press conference, Patricia Schulte-Singleton said that the step is being taken because Catholics have lost confidence in the Bishop. Schulte-Singleton is president of the group Endangered Catholics. The group, which has representation from about 15 parishes, maintains that many of the parishes targeted to close or merge should remain open because they are spiritually vibrant and financially viable.

Meanwhile, Nancy McGrath, president of a newly formed Cleveland protest group calling itself Code Purple, has filed a lawsuit claiming the Cleveland diocese has no authority under Ohio law to close churches without parishioners' consent. "It's very well established under Ohio law that a Catholic bishop holds the property of a parish in trust for the parish," said McGrath's lawyer, Robert Gippin, who has also asked the court to designate the suit as a class action. "We're saying he can't dispose of the trust or terminate the assets without the consent of the beneficiaries." But the Cleveland diocese disagrees: "Civil courts are required to respect the decisions of the church hierarchy in religious matters, such as the closing of a parish, and are constrained from interfering with the inner workings of the church by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."

On a positive note, the Cleveland diocese has given the convent at St. Procop Church to the tiny nonprofit that rehabbed it five years ago. The 22-bedroom building, was given to Community Service Alliance, that uses it as a residence for men moving from homelessness to self-sufficiency. (Catholic News Service 9/25/09, Cleveland Plain Dealer 11/5/09 and 11/21/09)

At Least Fifty-Six US Parish Appeals in Rome. For the past three years, FutureChurch has tracked parishioner appeals of parish closings from all over the US. As of November 23, 2009, we estimate there are at least 56 canonical appeals from ten US dioceses at some point in the process in Rome. The actual number could well be higher, since canon lawyers advise parishioners to be discreet, to enhance the possibility of the desired outcome of a mediated settlement. The dioceses of Allentown, Boston, Cleveland and Scranton are believed to have between 8-14 appeals each. Other dioceses, such as Camden NJ, may have more as final decrees are issued.


Focus on FutureChurch

Fall 2009


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