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Which Parish to Close?

Challenges dioceses face for future viability

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Father Carrion“Sophie’s Choice” is a 1979 novel penned by William Styron and in three years became a movie starring Meryl Streep. The title of the novel and movie has become an expression when one is given the impossible task of having to choose between two equal goods or two equally bad outcomes. It might describe where no outcome is preferable over the other, where both outcomes are equally desirable or equally undesirable.

In the novel and movie, the main character must choose between her children as to which one lives and which does not while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. A “Sophie’s Choice” occurs for parents of conjoined twins when faced with the prospect of medically separating the children, though the weaker child may not live if separated.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore and many dioceses across the nation have been and/or will be making these difficult types of choices when churches are closed and parishes are suppressed. (Disclaimer: Choosing between churches pales next to the choice by the main character in the novel or parents of conjoined twins.)

The Archdiocese of St. Louis announced several months ago that about 40 parishes will close or merge by the middle of 2024. This endeavor, titled “All Things New,” addresses the reality that there are too many parishes/churches and too few people to support them. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has been processing the same in its endeavor titled “Seek the City to Come,” focusing on a three from Hebrews 13:14: “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come.” No matter the title, the endeavor is a daunting task when choices have to be made in the present to forge a future.

The archdiocese has been seeking the right choice since the fall of 2022, when data was gathered, and clergy and lay gathered to imagine possibilities. It is now time to make “Sophie’s Choice.”

Priests and laity who have been present from the beginning are now sitting with parishes in their region mapping the Catholic landscape in the city. The archdiocese has stated that only 20 parishes of its current 60 may remain on the city landscape.

The final stage of the process is in motion, and even people engaged since the beginning are in shock. The anxiety thermometer is beyond measurement in some situations. While the endeavor has been recounted on websites, Flocknotes, the diocesan newspaper and parish bulletins, a common mantra is heard, “I did not know this was happening.” But it is the same everywhere, for all newsworthy items: “Father I don’t read the bulletin, I leave after Communion before the announcements, etc.”

Hard choices are being made. I have only been in the process since last July, when, along with a parochial vicar, we were transferred to lead five parishes. “The Five” (our nickname for them) are in a region of 18 parishes tasked to bring that number down to five parishes. The cathedral is one of the 18, and that is not closing. So now there are four finalists among the 17.

I have the easiest “Sophie’s Choice” when the priests gather, and each feels the need to put something on the table to bring the regional number to four (again, the total is 20 across the city). Since I have five parishes, it is easy to lay three or four parishes on the table as if they were poker chips. The pastor with only one parish has the more painful “Sophie’s Choice.” His “Sophie’s Choice” is: Do I offer my one parish for the good of the whole, and then I am out of a job (reassigned) or “put out to pasture” (retired), or do I fight for my one?

The priests also are weighing the objective data while dealing with emotions. As we reimagine the city to come, questions arise: Which site will be the best financially (not which parish now is best financially)? What will be best geographically, assuring the regional parishes are spread about equitably? Which site has the best buildings to fulfill the mission to come? Which property is the most marketable real estate to sell so the region is not strapped with empty buildings? None of these are easy choices.

A lot of grains of wheat must die, or they remain just dead grains of wheat on a dried-out stalk. Our faith is being tested, to bury some of the grains of wheat so the field can yield much fruit.

FATHER PATRICK CARRION is pastor of five parishes in East Baltimore, Maryland, and director of the Office of Cemetery Management for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

 
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