Cardinal O'Malley recently announced a plan to reorganize the archdiocese of Boston. 288 parishes will be grouped into 135 "collaboratives," each headed by one priest and one pastoral council and one finance council. The press release of the plan, titled Disciples in Mission, contains the official details from the diocese. Reports and reactions to the plan can be found here and here and at the infamously famous Boston Catholic Insider.
The approved restructuring of the archdiocese comes at the end of decade long contraction (some would say implosion) in wake of pedophilia scandal, the uproar over parish closings about six or so years ago, steep decline in Mass attendance (estimates say between 15% and 17% actually attend Mass) and an tidal wave of financial decline that has swept many parishes (conservatively 40%, perhaps as high as 60%) into the red.
The commentary that has surfaced after the formal announcement of the restructuring plan often serves to highlight the less than fecund state in which the Boston archdiocese finds itself currently as well as the widely anticipated institutional decline if current trends continue. Over the next decade the diocese will noticeably experience the effects of Catholicism's priest shortage as the 420 active priests in the diocese are reduced to about 200.
Depending on your point of view, the restructuring plan is either an attempt to dull the blow that will likely be felt when the number of available priests hits the wall or it is an indirect way of admitting the Church in Boston needs more lay activity and control. I would like to add another interpretive perspective to the mix. The planned restructuring admits in an albeit circuitous manner, that the Boston archdiocese has finally succumbed to the weight of the Church's institutional largess. The above mentioned press release emphasizes that parishes must find their own identity and devote a greater amount of its activity to reach out efforts, as opposed to ministering to the choir, so to speak. There is an awareness that the local parish must be the ecclesia prima, it must be a genuine experience of the Church as opposed to one among many referents that push one's religious experience up the ladder until you get to a bishop in Rome. The process has a way of deadening the life of the local parish. This having been said, I do not detect a sense of urgency about the matter. For the local parish to establish its identity and mission to work in the Catholic Church, you need to undue well established institutional habits. Not impossible, but unlikely.
At the heart of the institutional rot afflicting the Roman Church (and so aptly demonstrated in the Archdiocese of Boston) is an ecclesiology that constantly references the bishop of Rome and the machinations of the Vatican as the principle manifestation of the ecclesia. The Roman pontiff and the curia are the only sure examples of ecclesiastical existence and everything else is either measured by how well it confirms to the curial narrative or is considered as ultimately inconsequential to the Church compared to its well vested clerics. Plainly, the experience of the local parish vacillates between being inconsequential or utterly unreal. In such a system, it is difficult to raise a local ecclesiastical body that feels any sense of invested interest in the religion.
On a more practical level, having one priest performing sacramental ministry among, say, four parishes poses some serious challenges. Indeed, it is hard to see how anyone can think that such a scenario will likely reinvigorate the Archdiocese of Boston. Commentators have noted the problem of burnout among priests for the past decade or so. Now, the Boston archdiocese is guaranteeing that priests will spend a considerable portion of time driving between parishes and carrying the weight of a more demanding Mass schedule, particularly on the weekends. While in graduate school, I was an acquaintance of a Franciscan friar who saw this coming. He fully expects the end result will be that priests will become "mini-bishops" as they essentially fill episcopal functions among several parishes in a particular geographic region. If this new organizational program is the best the Roman Church can think of under its institutional weight, he may well be proven correct. Time will tell.