It would be too easy to look at the list of almost 60 parishes engaged in a restructuring or dialogue process this autumn and expect that they’ll all be ordered to close at any moment without so much as a peep from pastors and their parishioners. Far from it.

The parish restructuring process currently under way in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia addresses many thorny issues for planners but only has one goal: to strengthen parish life.

Indicators of parish health, including marriages, baptisms, funerals, parish organizations, participation in devotions and particularly Sunday Mass, along with the condition of a parish’s physical plant and finances, all help to paint a picture of a weak or strong parish. Projections of fewer priests available to serve in parishes in the future also are considered.

At the end of the day – that means January at the earliest for some parishes, March for most others – some parishes might close and merge with others. But not before extensive discussion and consultation with parishioners, pastors, archdiocesan administrators and clerical leaders result in proposals that might not be desirable, but will be necessary.

The hard but obvious truth is that there are more parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2012 than can be supported by the Catholic community at this time. It is no longer 1960, or 1980 or even 2000. An unfliching look under the hood of parishes must be done now in light of today’s realities.

In some areas of the Archdiocese two, three or four parishes are located less than a mile from each other, in some cases only blocks away. The reasons stem from history: Parishes serving specific ethnic groups such as Italians or Slovaks or Poles sprang from the area served by a larger territorial parish; parishes also proliferated in neighborhoods densely populated by Catholics.

In both cases, the conditions of the past bear little resemblance to the present. Ethnic populations have become more assimilated into the general Catholic population and areas traditionally “Catholic” in character have become less so. The result is that fewer Catholics today must support a parish built to address the needs and numbers of yesterday.

The planning process, which presents in detail, not only addresses parishes themselves but how they together serve a given area. The regions now under study include two areas of Delaware County and five regions in the City of Philadelphia.

Some of the parishes in the restructring are located in “mission-sensitive” areas such as the City of Chester in Delaware County, according to Msgr. Arthur E. Rodgers, coordinator of archdiocesan planning initiatives.

“You can’t close St. Katharine Drexel (because) you’d have no (Catholic) church in Chester,” said. “We’ll do all we can to maintain the Catholic presence” in such areas. presents a list of all the affected parishes here, organized by Parish Planning Area (PPA). For each parish in a PPA, the link leads to a page with detailed information about the parish.

For example, PPA 600 includes St. Barbara Parish in West Philadelphia. The link to the parish information page includes a link to the Report to Pastor, Previous 5 Years showing data from 2007 to 2011, and the Report to Pastor, Prior 5 Years for 2002-2006 data.

All the data is public, and is meant to foster the discussion that is essential to the process. “The people in the parishes are all asked for input,” Msgr. Rodgers said. “That is very important.”

Parish pastors, their parishioners, planners from the archdiocese, regional deans and auxiliary bishops together are working to foster “strong, viable parishes that serve the Archdiocese in its role of evangelization for years to come,” he added.

Their goal is not to close parishes carelessly or callously, but to build the parish ideal described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which calls the parish the community of the Christian faithful that gathers the people together for the celebration of the Eucharist; where it teaches Christ’s saving word; and where it practices Christian charity in good works and love (no. 2179).

That work is not easy, but it is essential to the life of the Catholic community in the Philadelphia Archdiocese in our day.