By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T

As outlined in Cardinal Justin Rigali’s 2010 pastoral letter “Called to Conversion and Holiness,” the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has launched an important new initiative that will affect all of the 268 parishes in its territory.

Each parish, working through its parish pastoral council and the parish financial council or through a special committee set up for the purpose, will begin a detailed study and evaluation of its present and future demography, geographic relation to neighboring parishes, financial stability, condition of facilities, and in particular, its vitality today and its prognosis for future strength and dynamism. {{more}}

“Specific information and direction for the parish evaluation will be shared with all parishes over the next three months,” said Msgr. Arthur E. Rodgers, coordinator of planning initiatives for the Archdiocese.

Generally, the study will focus on seven areas: Worshipping Parish, Welcoming and Caring Parish, Witnessing and Proclaiming Parish, Pastoral Outreach and Service for Justice, Effectively Administered Parish and Stewardship.

As part of this initiative, the Archdiocese has been spanided into four regions, each under the direction of an auxiliary bishop. Region I is comprised of Chester County and part of Delaware County; Region II includes part of Montgomery County and part of Philadelphia-North; Region III is Philadelphia-South and part of Delaware County; and Region IV is Bucks County and part of Philadelphia-North. Also, after seeking input from pastors, the former 40 clusters have been abolished and replaced with 44 parish planning areas.

“We tried to get away from the rigidity of the clusters,” Msgr. Rodgers said. “The pastors were asked what would be the best arrangement so they would feel comfortable in dealing with their neighboring parishes. Even with these parish planning areas, it doesn’t restrict further discussions outside of the area, if it is going to be beneficial.”

At the same time the parishes are undergoing self-evaluation, some will be asked to work together over and above that with the other parishes in their area and look at the future of the area.

“They are going to be evaluating their area with much the same criterion as they are using when they evaluate their own parish,” Msgr. Rodgers said, but always with the question in mind: How can we work together so that the area will be stable, will be vital and will have the services it needs in order to maintain that vitality and stability?

In some cases that could be as simple as identifying a parish with a thriving young adult group that members of the other parishes could join.

In some areas it will mean combining parishes, something necessitated by changes in the parishes and also the current shortage of priests.

“There are different things we have to consider,” Msgr. Rodgers said. “First of all, demographics, where are the people? That is our starting point. Then we have to look at the number of priests we have to serve. We look at facilities. What facilities are in a condition that they can be maintained? How stable is the parish financially? You can’t have parishes that can’t pay their electric bill or insurance bill.”

According to Msgr. Rodgers, there are a number of parishes that are in this situation, and the list keeps growing. The Archdiocese dispenses millions of dollars every year to assist these parishes through the Interparochial Cooperation Commission.

“When I was chairman, the budget was about $2 million, and now it is twice that, and it goes over budget every year,” he said. “It is getting to a point where the Archdiocese can’t afford to pay their bills.”

In some sections of the Archdiocese, particularly in the city and near suburbs, churches are very close together, and consolidations would not result in physical inconvenience. However, “we grew up with the mentality you could always walk to church; that may be gone if we have parish consolidations,” Msgr. Rodgers said.

Not all the parishes will be initially asked to undergo the formal evaluation process with the other parishes in their parish planning area, Msgr. Rodgers said. At this point it will involve 22 of the parish planning areas, spread out across the Archdiocese over the four regions. The rest will undergo the same process at a later date.

Initially they will have to determine such items as where they should meet, who should participate and what the agenda will be.

This process addresses only the parishes as such. The other areas identified in “Called to Conversion and Holiness,” Catholic education, archdiocesan office structure and financial stewardship, are not directly part of this particular study process.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.