'Find creative ways to keep our parishes open'

Our Lady Queen of Angels School in the New York's Harlem community is seen Sept. 1. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Though I don't particularly like celebrity hoopla, I am following Pope Francis’ visit to the United States with heightened interest. 

I'm glad our pope is spending so much time with poor folk during his time here. 

In Washington, he will visit with homeless families and check out St. Maria's meals, a volunteer food truck operation that hands out hot meals to mostly Spanish-speaking day laborers.

In Philadelphia, prisoners recently hand carved a 6-foot chair from walnut for the pope to sit on when he visits the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.  Up to 100 inmates, family members and prison staff from that facility and other Philadelphia prisons, will meet with the pope.  

Julie Byrne of Hofstra University said Francis is "leading by example" noting the timeliness of his prison visit when public concern about over-crowding and strict sentencing  rules for non-violent offenders is gaining currency  in political circles.

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But my heart is especially with students and former parishioners at Our Lady Queen of Angels school and parish (now closed) in the mostly Latino and black neighborhood of East Harlem.  Most of the school's nearly 300 students are immigrants whose meager family incomes qualify them for financial aid. Pope Francis will meet with selected pupils as well as immigrants and refugees, including unaccompanied minors who have come to the United States.

This is a struggling neighborhood largely unaffected by the gentrification in other areas of Harlem. Which is why there was such a huge outcry in 2007 when the New York archdiocese closed Our Lady Queen of Angels parish. 

“This area is very poor; there is high crime,” Patty Rodriguez explained to the New York Times.  

Rodriguez is a former parishioner who still leads monthly sidewalk services in front of the church eight years after it closed.

“This was something that we needed, like a beacon. Other churches are here, but they’re not in the middle of the projects. ... I don't understand it.”

Rodriguez and Lili Garcia -- who was married at the church and works at a beauty salon across the street -- are hoping the pope's visit might shine a spotlight on the loss of their church.

I hope they succeed.  

Our Lady Queen of Angels is just one of hundreds of parishes in poor neighborhoods that U.S. bishops are choosing to close rather than employ creative strategies to keep them open. 

Similar scenarios are being played out at other parishes in New York, as well as in Philadelphia and Detroit,

But one Pennsylvania diocese has drastically changed its approach after closing 69 parishes just four years ago.  In mid-summer, Scranton, Pa., Bishop Joseph C. Bambera installed the diocese's first parish life coordinator, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Mary Ann Cody at Our Lady of the Eucharist Parish in Pittston, Pa.

A Catholic educator, Cody previously served as the parish's pastoral associate. She will provide day-to day pastoral leadership that the bishop describes as "faithful witness, wise teacher and servant leader." A priest will provide sacramental ministry on Sundays.

Despite mergers that drastically downsized the Scranton diocese by one-third (to 120 parishes), the number of priestless parishes has doubled -- from five in 2005 to 14 in 2015.  In 10 years, the diocese projects it will have fewer than 100 priests even though there is a slight uptick in seminary enrollment.  

Canon lawyer Poor Handmaid of Jesus Christ Sr. Kate Kuenstler -- who had represented heart-broken Scranton parishioners appealing to Rome -- applauded Bambera's decision: 

"This bishop now sees that merging parishes does not fix the growing reality," she said.  "Now alternative leadership styles are being implemented. It is about time bishops do this. ... Unfortunately, [his] 180 degree shift comes from crisis rather than creativity."

Boston's Disciples in Mission project, also born from crisis, is another example of keeping parishes open using creative pastoral models. Announced in late 2012, the plan organizes Boston's 288 parishes into about 135 "collaboratives" served by a team including a pastor, deacons and lay ecclesial ministers. Each parish retains its own canonical and civil integrity with separate finance councils, bank accounts, assets and liabilities. This plan was developed in the wake of the disastrous closing of 65 viable Boston parishes in 2004, at least in part to pay for burgeoning legal fees from clergy sex abuse.

It is probably no coincidence that Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley is part of Pope Francis' inner circle "Group of Nine" cardinals. O'Malley is a pastoral man who inherited the Boston mess. 

One silver lining emerging from Boston's agonizing crisis could be O'Malley's innovative approach to both serving and empowering the People of God.

"The church calls us to consistently invite our people to ministry and mission in the church,” said Bamberra in a video interview. "[N]ot just the priests, not just our deacons … all the People of God."

My hope is that when Pope Francis comes, he will listen to faithful Catholics in New York and Philadelphia fighting to save precious parishes that provide hope and stability to disadvantaged neighborhoods. 

People like those from more than two dozen New York parishes whose appeals are pending at the Vatican right now.  People like parishioners at Our Lady of Peace, who created a pop-up pope  to draw attention to their plight.

Thankfully, Bambera and O'Malley are at last dealing with reality. 

Too many other prelates still seem to have their heads in the sand.

But Pope Francis could change all of that. A new international Groundswell petition asks him to tell the world's bishops to "find creative ways to keep our parishes open."   

I sure hope he listens.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

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