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Boston archdiocese announces 1st phase of overhaul

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BRAINTREE, Mass. (AP) - The Archdiocese of Boston on Thursday announced the first phase of an overhaul that aims to strengthen parishes for a region-wide push to refill empty pews.

The restructuring will organize the archdiocese's 288 parishes into 135 clusters, called collaboratives, that will share clergy, buildings and resources.

The archdiocese, among the largest in the country, on Thursday released the list of its first 12 collaboratives, which include 28 parishes from throughout its geographic range. Most of the collaboratives combine two or three parishes from the same community. They were formed in Belmont, Beverly, Billerica, Boston, Brookline, Lakeville, Lynn, Lynnfield, Methuen, Newtown, Salem and Weymouth.

The remainder of the archdiocese's parishes will be grouped together in two or three more phases over the coming years, with the last collaborative up and running by 2019, said the Rev. Paul Soper, the archdiocese's director of pastoral planning.

The changes come amid weak attendance, failing parish finances and a priest shortage. But Soper said the plan is the opposite of retreat: It's an attempt to marshal the church's strength so it can better spread the faith at its core.

"We do not believe Christ is irrelevant to this generation," he said.

Each parish will keep its name, property and legal identity. Joseph O'Keefe, who attends Salem's Immaculate Conception Parish, said the collaboratives are a good idea, but he'll be watching.

"They tell us that resources will stay with the parish," he said. "I hope it does, but I want to see it."

The plans cap a decade in Boston that saw the height of the clergy's child sex abuse scandal and widespread parish closings.

Today, just 16 percent of the area's Catholics attend Mass, and 40 percent of parishes can't pay their bills. Meanwhile, the archdiocese expects the number of active priests to fall from about 450 to below 200 within a decade. The restructuring is an attempt to attack these statistics by building a stronger, more efficient platform for evangelization.

One pastor will lead the collaborative's clerical staff, and the individual finance councils will be merged into one. Staff layoffs are likely, and collaboratives can shed unneeded properties, such as nearly vacant rectories, or request permission to shut down church buildings.

Skeptics believe the new plan is a pretext for more parish closings, but Soper said that's not true, since the point of the plan is to rebuild parishes.

Many parishes in the first phase volunteered for it. Soper said they also were chosen to represent a broad geographic, demographic and ethnic range across the archdiocese, home to more than 1.8 million Catholics. The first collaboratives, like those in future phases, are expected to take two years to be operating.

Soper will be watching the initial collaboratives for their responses to various potential problems, such as how they handle budgeting for multiple parishes and how parishes that speak different languages mix.

All priests must resign their current posts, with no certainty about where they'll land in the new structure. The Rev. John Sheridan, pastor of St. James Parish in Salem, said he sees the change as opportunity.

"This is a time and place where we take those ideas of 'my priesthood' and 'my ego' and put them aside and understand what's more important to the church," he said.

Soper said he knows growing the church won't be easy in an increasingly secular society, even with the best strategy, and even if the church wasn't coming off a profoundly terrible decade.

"A lot of this is prayer and trust," he said. "We're pulling together some energy, and then we'll open ourselves to the spirit, and we're hoping that good things are going to come from that."

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