The Archdiocese of New York announced Nov. 2 the largest restructuring of parishes in its more than 200-year history—one Cardinal Dolan said would provide a sorely needed update to church landscape, allowing the archdiocese and its parishes to move beyond maintenance and toward the mission to which they are called.
At Masses throughout the archdiocese, the faithful officially learned how their parishes fared, with some finding the results heart-breaking, and others cheered by the news that their parishes would not be merging.
In fact, the mergers themselves came in two forms.
The first list of 48 merged parishes included 24 parish churches and 24 other churches, no longer parishes, where Mass and sacraments will continue to be celebrated.
(A newly created Parish Planning Office, under the direction of Eileen Mulcahy, a veteran archdiocesan employee, will have the task of evaluating these newly merged parishes every two years, as well as every parish in the archdiocese.)
A second list of 64 merged parishes would result in 31 parish churches, after Aug. 1, 2015. Masses and the sacraments would no longer be offered in the other churches, except on special occasions.
All together, the mergers affect 112—or slightly less than one-third—of the archdiocese’s 368 parishes.
The restructuring came as a result of a massive pastoral planning initiative, called Making All Things New, begun in 2010 and fully implemented on the parish level throughout the archdiocese throughout the past year and a half.
The archdiocese’s announcement describing the decisions called Making All Things New the “first pastoral planning initiative to incorporate the ‘ground-up’ involvement of every parish in the archdiocese.”
It has been just that as the Making All Things New process unfolded. Before Cardinal Dolan made the final decisions, he received input from all of the archdiocese’s parishes; 75 parish clusters, groups of four to seven neighboring parishes; a 40-person advisory committee made up of clergy, religious men and women, and lay faithful from across the archdiocese; the Priests’ Council; and other close advisers and key staff.
In addition to the mergers outlined above, a small number of proposals for additional mergers have arisen from the cardinal’s own reflection on proposals presented to him, as well as from discussions with his key advisers. The cardinal has asked that these proposals be shared with the appropriate parish clusters and the archdiocesan advisory committee for their input. A review by the Priests’ Council will also take place before final decisions are reached.
The archdiocese’s release said, “It is hoped that these new proposals will be acted upon soon so that final decisions are reached over the next several months.”
Cardinal Dolan, in an interview with Catholic New York and Catholic News Service that afternoon—one of a number he conducted with various media representatives—said that the archdiocese has been living “within an infrastructure that began in the 1880s and reached its peak in the 1950s.” One facet of such a parish landscape was that 88, or roughly 25 percent, of the archdiocese’s 368 parishes are located in Manhattan, which has approximately 12 percent of the Catholic population of 2.8 million.
“This is a fine-tuning, an adjustment of the parochial architecture we’ve inherited from Cardinal (Francis) Spellman, whom I admire immensely. It’s what was needed then, it’s not what’s needed now,” the cardinal said.
Cardinal Spellman was Archbishop of New York from 1939 to 1967, a period that included a post-World War II construction boom that erected many parish churches and schools across the archdiocese.
Of the announced mergers, nine of those where one of the churches would cease performing sacramental functions by next August are located in Manhattan. Six other mergers featured Manhattan parishes where one parish is designated as the parish church and the other will remain open for Masses and sacramental functions.
High numbers of both merger categories are also affecting parishes in the Bronx and in Westchester County.
“You do the math. It’s awkward, it’s lopsided,” the cardinal said, contrasting an overabundance of church buildings in Manhattan and some other parts of New York City with the conditions reflected in some parishes in the archdiocese’s upper counties where Masses are offered for “standing room only” congregations in “cafeterias and gyms” because of a lack of more suitable church facilities.
The necessary implementation of the changes recommended and accepted during the Making All Things New process does not make the mergers any easier to accept, especially at churches where Masses will no longer be celebrated and the sacraments no longer administered in nine months’ time, the cardinal said.
He said he had already spoken that day with a couple of pastors who were sad to the point of tears when they related how the announcement of the news played out in their parishes that morning. The cardinal admitted that he, too, shed tears with them.
The sadness was tinged with a sense of loss, confusion and even anger for many parishes, especially those who worship at the churches where sacramental functions will cease next year.
“That’s where the sting is,” the cardinal said. “That’s where the tears are.”
The nine-month time frame was designed to offer time for parishioners to adjust to the new reality and then make the transition to a neighboring parish community that is “eager to welcome” them, the cardinal explained. He anticipated that some parishioners in the affected parishes would begin to consider moving almost immediately while others would need more time.
The Church does not operate like a business that might announce such significant changes and then prefer to begin to enforce implementation immediately, the cardinal said. He likened the transition many Catholics are now facing to one in families where elderly parents are forced to consider leaving their home after many years because it has become too big for them to maintain.
In the transition, there is much discussion and planning so that the parents can be comfortably resettled into a new home.
“We want to give our people time,” the cardinal said.
Still, the restructuring of the archdiocese’s parishes through Making All Things New was not an optional exercise but a needed resetting of the archdiocese’s parishes and pastoral priorities, as the cardinal and Auxiliary Bishop John O’Hara, director of strategic pastoral planning, both explained in the interview.
The archdiocese’s release explaining the decisions pointed out nine areas in which parishioners of the archdiocese, along with others including clergy and religious, the archdiocesan Pastoral Council and Cardinal Dolan himself identified as priorities for pastoral planning. They included the need for a strategic pastoral plan for Catholic schools; improved religious education and faith formation programs for children, youth and adults; greater outreach to various ethnic groups, especially Hispanic Catholics and recent immigrants; and enhanced ministry to teens, college students and young adults, along with a host of other areas. The statement also showed how the priorities are being addressed.
Bishop O’Hara noted that the pastoral planning process was not solely about deciding which parishes would be merged but involved all the parishes, through their cluster groups, in formulating “plans of collaboration” to address that could range from working together on a joint plan for youth ministry in several parishes or how best to pastorally tend to the nursing homes and hospitals within a cluster region.
“Parishes are now talking to the parishes next door,” the bishop said.
The cardinal cited the success of Pathways to Excellence, the strategic plan for the archdiocese’s schools, which involved the closing of a significant number of schools but resulted in a strong regional system of Catholic education.
One lesson learned from that experience, the cardinal said, was that the process worked a lot better when people at the local level “were involved and were not surprised.” That’s what Making All Things New has attempted to do, he said.
Both the cardinal and Bishop O’Hara emphasized that the process is not complete.
The cardinal was asked about the possibility of enacting a program of evangelization to reawaken a Catholic population, not only in New York but elsewhere as well, that is not coming to Mass on Sundays or engaging in other parish activities in sufficient numbers.
The cardinal noted that the missing faithful are a big problem for the archdiocese and at individual parishes. “They’re not coming anymore. We have to get them back,” he said.
In recent years, archdiocese-wide evangelization efforts have been stymied because parishes didn’t have the resources to support such initiatives, the cardinal reported. Maintenance of facilities has taken priority over efforts at evangelization, he said.
“They’re so oppressed by bills and maintenance that we can’t do mission,” the cardinal said of the archdiocese’s pastors and parishes.
“We have to talk up how to fill buildings, not how to keep them up.”